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Microplastics: The Situation of Today
To better understand the extension of the issue with microplastics, as well as the relation to the textile industry, this part as follow will present previous research. The scientific research is limited but there are multiple initiatives admitted to this issue arisen from governments, NGOs, companies and individuals. The first subsection will guide the reader though the general idea of what microplastics are, where they come from, how they affect the marine life and be followed by related initiatives to minimize microplastic pollution. Then the succeeding subsection will explain the relationship between microplastics and the textile industry. Lastly, a description of the design- and production process will be presented.
A General Background
Sources and impacts
To better understand the many sources of microplastics they have been divided into primary and secondary sources, generated both from land-based (98%) and of sea-based (2%) activities.
• Primary sources are found in products such facial cleansers, toothpaste, shower and bath gels, scrubs and peelings but also in foundations, mascaras, shaving creams, nail polish, sunscreens and synthetic clothes (Chang 2015; Fendell and Sewell 2009; Napper et al. 2015; Lei et al. 2017), textile laundry, abrasion from tires, road marking and city dust (Boucher and Friot 2017) and from sewer overflows, tourism-related litter and illegal dumping (Piñol et al. 2015)
• Secondary sources come mainly from abrasion from tires or waste from artificial grass (Naturvårdsverket 2017), degradation from larger plastic items (Boucher and Friot 2017), fragmentation synthetic textile waste (Henry et al. 2018) and from sewer overflows, tourism-related litter and illegal dumping (Piñol et al. 2015)
Plastic is a strong, lightweight, flexible and inexpensive material and can be used in a diverse range of ways. The plastic industry was the fastest industry growing between 1950 and 2016, growing from 1,7 million tons to 335 million tons (Plastics Europe 2017; UNEP 2015). This numbers, however, does not include the manufacturing of synthetic textiles (37,2 million tons) being 65% of the total fiber production in the world (Boucher and Friot 2017).
Of the total plastic industry is almost 50% of all plastic produced for packaging and disposals and that over 90% of the total harm caused to marine life is due to such litter (Napper et al. 2015; PlasticSoupFoundation.org 2018). Nevertheless, has recent studies seen that it is not only big plastics causing harm but also microplastics. According to Boucher and Friot (2017) has microplastics now been seen as another big threat of the marine ecosystem with a release of 1,5 million tons per year. Microplastic comes from fragmentation of larger plastic objects, caused by physical and chemical exposure such as waves, UV light and other chemical substances (Auta et al. 2017). Such chemical process happens wherever litter is stored outside and where there is no waste management. It has been reported that storms and bad weather can transport large plastic object as well as smaller to new areas, scattering and impede any attempt to wield the debris (Auta et al. 2017). Furthermore does microplastics enter the environment through abrasion from tires and road marking. With no or very low possibility to enter any waste or wastewater treatment systems the fragments are either spread by the wind or washed of the road by rain and flushed into the soil or into runoffs. Depending on the regional connection of sewer and wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) the water could be filtered and purified but fact states no plant to this point captures all microplastics entered (Boucher and Friot 2017).
One of the identified sources of microplastic release, is according to Napper et al. (2015) and Lei et al. (2017) from cosmetic products. The particles are made of polyethylene in micro size and are used for their exfoliant properties (Chang 2015). The use of cosmetic products is estimated to release of up to 94,500 pieces in one single use (Chang 2015; Napper et al. 2015) reaching a contamination of 1,53 million tons yearly (Lei et al. 2017).
Based on scientific research have the large variety of size, shape and color of microplastics a direct relationship to how it will be encountered by the marine wildlife (Napper et al. 2015). There have been discoveries that microplastics has been ingested into filter feeding animals, fishes, marine mammals and birds (Rochman et al. 2013; Fendell and Sewell 2009; Auta et al. 2017; Napper et al. 2015; Mauro et al. 2017). As reported by Auta et al. (2017) has the consumption of microplastic shown to change the behavior of animals, causing physiological stress, internal blockage, cancer (result of toxins sorb on the particles) which could end in a fatal outcome (Chang 2015; Fendall and Sewell 2009; Felsing et al. 2017; Mauro et al. Benfield 2017).
Still, it is not only organisms and animals suffering of microplastics. Depending on size and weight does some microplastics float on the surface or near-surface as most studies have presented. There are studies showing microplastics being ingested by plankton sinks to the marine sediments. The study of Auta et al. (2017) state that deep sea areas, submarine canyons and marine coastal are covered in microplastic. Furthermore does the study of Henry et al. (2018) state that 94% of the entered plastic ends up on the ocean floor, estimated that 70 kg plastic covers each square kilometer of the sea bed. The sunken microplastics mix with all things on the seafloor and the study made by Yang et al. (2015) found microplastics in 15 different sea salt brands, indicating a direct link between microplastic contamination and human consumption.
Finally, plastic can be generated from a diverse set of polymers. The polymers have different characteristics suitable various use. Plastic is durable and tough, so though that research state that the decomposing of plastics is low or even imperceptible. There are no ways, according to Napper et al. (2015), of removing microplastics from the oceans without harming also other microorganisms. This means that plastics entering aquatic areas will remain in there (Auta et al. 2017; Napper et al. 2015). The lack of decomposing and the unknown accumulation add to the complexity and uncertainty of how microplastic pollution will affect and are affecting our ecosystem (Kroon et al.2018). Such dilemma complicates the problem and increasing the severity to stop microplastics beforehand.
Initiatives for solutions
In 2015, the UN Environment Program (UNEP) released a report with a precautionary approach towards microplastics with the intention to phase-out and ban microplastics in personal care products and cosmetics (UN Environment 2015). The rising attention led to both U.S and Canada banned the production of cosmetic microplastics (Napper et al. 2015; Mauro et al. 2017; Chang 2015). The negative publicity led to several cosmetic brands excluded microparticles from their products (using sand and nut shells instead), added more information on labeling and packaging and spread more information through marketing campaigns (Chang 2015; Napper et al. 2015). During the last year the interest of microplastics has culminated into multiple campaigns such as the Clean Seas Campaign launched by the UN Environment in 2017 with the aim to eliminate plastic waste and debris in marine areas and to enlighten consumers of their consumption and throwaway habits of disposables and cosmetics (UN Environment 2017). Also, The Plastic Soup Foundation, which by campaigns, media, educational programs pursuit to increasing attention to the marine debris (PlasticSoupFoundation.org 2018). Their campaign Beat the Microbeads reach from picking up plastics in the near surrounding, to stop buying cosmetic products with microbeads and preventing people to release balloons. Further have they developed an app, Beat the Microbead App, for consumers to track their plastic footprint (Kirschbaum 2018). The Plastic Soup Foundation supports as well other projects such as the Rozalia Projects. Rachel Miller, Project co-founder and Executive Director of the project believe they can clean the oceans from the floating plastic debris (TEDx 2014). Through multiple development projects, scientific research, educations and cleanups the Rozalia Project attempt to find new ways of cleaning the oceans and to educate kids to value our marine environments (Rozalia Project 2013).
Disposables, being commonly used in the food industry have too received attention and The Guardian (Readfearn 2018) reported that plastic bottles contain twice as many microplastics than tap water. Such news has engendered several projects to minimize the use of plastic bottles. One such project is made by The Skipping Rocks Lab (2018). They created the Ooho!, which is a bottle made of 100% plants and could either be eaten after use or biodegrade within six weeks. Many bottles today are usually made of PET and according Piere-Yves Paslie, the co-founder of The Skipping Rocks Lab, does it take up to 700 years to decompose. Finally, he said in the interview with Innovation Forum (2017), “Just 0.03% of the brown seaweed in the world could replace all of the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles we get through every year”.
Furthermore, did Robert Pocius, the founder of Tek Pak solutions say in an interview with Innovation Forum (2018), that they have developed a new solution for biodegradable plastics. The idea is that the plastic will fully degrade into CO2, methane and inert material. The degradation would take 20 months if it would end up on landfill instead of being recycled. Nevertheless, he did not mention how the plastic would react if ended up in the ocean. The composition of the two environments are different and one could not say that the material would react in the same way irrespective of environmental conditions.
Vaughan (2016) said biodegradable plastics is a ‘false solution’. Vaughan reports in the magazine The Guardian that UN’s top environmental scientist warns about the marketing of using biodegradable products as the solution of plastics in the oceans. The false assumption of biodegradable polymers being less harmful for the environment is also supported by the research conducted by Straube et al. (2017). They discovered in their study that the effects of petroleum-based and biodegradable microplastics does not differ in their effect on marine life.
In their study they tested a biodegradable bio-microplastic particle made of polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB) and petroleum-based microplastic particle made of polymethylmethacrylate (PMMA). Such result, according to the authors should be further discovered to understand the effect from the environmentally friendly alternatives (Straube et al. 2017, p. 15-16). The lack of knowledge of the real effect of changing to biodegradable polymers is it hard to see the benefits for the textile industry, being scared doing something that would be even worse than the first solution.
A Focus on Textiles
Sources and impacts
According to the Nonwovens Industry Magazine (2017) has the synthetic textile marked grown from 14 million tons to 71 million tons between 1980 and 2016. The flexibility and easy maintenance of synthetic fibers makes it a preferred choice for many consumers, wanting clothes which are adapted to their many activities, are easy to care for and comfortable to wear (Grandviewresearch.com 2018; Keiser and Garner 2012). The ability to modify synthetic fibers has generated a diversity of applications and they are commonly used by sport and outdoor brands. According to the research by De Falco et al. (2017) has some fabrics shown to release more microplastics than others, where polyester and acrylic top the scale. As reported by Grandviewresearch.com (2018), an U.S. market research and consulting company, has polyester the largest market share and account for almost 50% of China’s total revenue and is expected to continually grow 7,3% until 2025.
Synthetic textiles have been identified as one of the contributing source of microplastic pollution in our oceans were polyester, together with acrylic and polyamide has been the most recurrent synthetic fiber found in sediments and wastewater across the world (Naturvårdsverket 2017). Furthermore states the Mermaids report by Gavignano et al. (2015), an active NGO and important for this report, that polyester, acrylic, polypropylene, polyethylene and polyamide is supposed to be the largest contributors of microplastics in washing effluents from the textile industry. However, the scientifically research points out that the main entry of microplastics is from domestic washing machines (De Falco et al 2017; Auta et al. 2017; Napper and Thompson 2016). This highlights the contradictions between reports conducted by associations and scientific research, indicating there is a lack of coherency in the level of knowledge.
Microplastic release from textiles, also referred as shedding, have been scientifically related to the type and quality of fabric, age of the garment, type of washing machine (top-loading vs front-loading), the level of mechanical stress (centrifuge), temperature and chemical stress (type of detergent used) (Henry et al. 2018; De Falco et al. 2017). However, to this point there is no common way of measuring microplastic release from textiles. Although there has been presented new research of microplastic shedding from textiles, the issue with no standard test method makes the results incomparable, with evident effects of not knowing whom or what to believe.
One study, made by De Falco et al. (2017) investigated the difference in microplastic shedding from three types of textiles made with different yarn and fabric constructions together with parameters such as detergents, temperature, time, water hardness as well if washed in domestic or industrial machine. The study did also analyze warp and weft yarn and what impact staple or filament fibers have. The results showed that liquid detergents compared to powder caused less microplastic release (a decrease of 6,000,000 microfibers per 5 kg wash). The explanation being that powder detergent contains insoluble compounds as well as having a higher pH which increases friction and stress in the laundry, causing more microplastic release. When analyzing the impact of the yarn the study showed that staple fibers were more likely to release than filament fibers during washing. The reason said to be that shorter staple fibers were more likely to slip from the yarn. Nevertheless, as comparison to de Falco et al.’s report stands (among others) the research made by Napper and Thompson (2016) saying a 6 kg wash load could release between 137,951-728,789 microplastics which would make De Falco et al. result impossible. These differences have been widely acknowledged among the researchers who say this is an issue with current research.
To prevent release of microplastics, De Falco et al. (2017) said that the use of softener could decrease release up to 4,000,000 microfibers per 5 kg wash. However, the use of softeners has been proved otherwise in the research mad by Smith and Block (1982) as well as by Chiweshe and Crews (2000) saying softeners rather bolster microplastic release in domestic washing machines. Furthermore showed the study by De Falco et al. (2017) a correlation between microfibers release and higher temperature, longer washing time and mechanical action (centrifuge). The different sizes of the microplastics identified in the study could be further matched with those found in marine organisms and animals, strengthen the correlation between the potential negative environmental effects associated with synthetic textiles.
Even though the research of microplastics is scares in relation to the textile value chain, the interest of the more specific aspects causing microplastic release has been investigated, although in limited extent. Naturvårdsverket did a study in 2017 trying to identify what parameters could increase microplastic release, they found as well as Gavignano et al. (2015) from the Mermaids, that the choice of fibers (fiber type, fiber mix, fiber length) and fabric construction (weave/knitted, loose/tight) has an significant impact. The bachelor study made by Peterson and Roslund (2015) from the Textile University of Borås, confirmed in their report that yarn made by staple fibers generally precipitated more than filament yarn. They also found that a tighter fabric construction yielded fewer microplastics than those of a loose construction and finally that aged fabrics tend to shed more. The worst result was of those fabrics held with all three components giving a significantly greater amount of microplastic release than those fabrics with only two or fewer. De Wael et al. (2010) stated in their research that the weave of the fabric becomes important if the fabric consists of more than one fiber type, some fibers shed more and dependent whether it is exposed or not (warp or weft) to the surface. Considerable is that many garments can be composed by many different fibers and fabric constructions whether it is the outer shell, the lining or the cuffs, implying that one garment should be tested per different fabric construction.
A study founded by Mistra Future Fashion with researchers from Swerea delivered new research in 2017 on how the construction of fabrics affect the release of microplastics (Roos et al. 2017). Additionally findings of the study showed that using an ultrasonic cutting machine instead of regular scissors reduced shedding significantly. When testing the two methods a total of 1927 fibers where shed from scissor while only 890 fibers were shed from the ultrasonic cutting. Additional preliminary findings were that shedding could be reduced if mechanical processes such as brunching were reduced and if microplastics were removed already in production. Similar to Roos et al. (2017) states Nayak and Padhye (2016) that the use of laser helps to avoid the problem of fraying which occur whit conventional cutting. The locked edges would prevent microplastics as synthetic materials would melt in contact with the laser and therefore remove all loose edges.
As mentioned, did the Mermaids release a report in 2015 which described the influence of spinning, weaving a knitting, mechanical and chemical finishing. They found 5 components having the most effect on microplastic release;
i. fiber length
ii. yarns twist and re-twist
iii. yarn count
iv. fabric warp and weft densities
v. fabric’s weight
According to the Mermaids report (Gavignano et al. 2015) are there three spinning processes most used for producing yarns; ring spinning, rotor spinning and compaction spinning. Of the two main alternatives (ring spinning and rotor spinning), the rotor spinning process is the most efficient to minimize hairiness and reduce pilling on the yarn. However, yarn twist, fiber length and yarn count could also affect the final quality of the yarn, saying that the best alternative (to minimize microplastic release) would be to have a high twist of low yarn count with filament fibers. Yet, if high speed is obtained during the yarn formation it is more likely for the fibers to break and therefore increase hairiness leading to pilling and release.
As the yarn is produces it will continue into the waving or knitted process, constructing the fabric. The characteristics the yarn received from previous process will be transmitted into the fabric. If a yarn is of a hairy character the mechanical stress from the waving or knitting machine will increase the risk of breakage and shedding. The released microplastics will then become loose parts in the fabric which will either fall into the machines, become dust in the air or on the floor end up in washing machines, and later in our aquatic environments.
In opposite to those mechanical processes associated with microplastic release gave the report two suggestions on how to use mechanical finishing’s to prevent microplastic release; singeing and calendaring. By using a finishing, the appearance of pilling can be reduced. According to the report does synthetic fibers have a high tendency for pilling, it could however be reduced by applying any of the nine chemical finishing tested. All the products showed a reduced pilling behavior.
Not covered by the Mermaids report is the use, or non-use of biodegradable polymers. As discussed in previous chapter, plastics can degrade even though there is a discussion to what level (Auta et al. 2017; Napper et al. 2015; Kroon et al.2018). Biodegradable polymers have been much discussed from a medical perspective (Subtricia et al. 2018; Golding et al. 2006; Domb and Kumar 2011). In the research of Younes (2017) an in-depth analyzes have been made about the diversity of biodegradable polymers applications in both the fiber and fabric industry. According to Younes can biopolymers be made either by natural, regenerated or synthetic origin with the potential to lower the environmental impact. However, the author also says that even though biodegradable fibers have the potential for several applications it is mostly making single or short-term items. Thus far, the relationship between biodegradable polymers and microplastic pollutions is still to be discovered.
Initiatives for solutions
As there are a limited amount of scientific research about microplastics in the textile value chain does much of the available information come from NGOs and professional organizations which feeling the pressure to find the cause and the solution. One such initiative comes from the organization Mermaids, which is additionally a part of EU’s Life+ Project (Life-mermaids.eu, 2018), who has developed the Handbook for zero microplastics from textiles and laundry (2018). As a further development from the previous study made by Gavignano et al. 2015 this is one of the more extended reports found this far addressing such variety of parameters in the textile value chain. The handbook have provided a guideline for synthetic textile manufacturers to reduce microplastic release in the production process. They identified four main areas with higher risk for microplastic release; the fiber, the yarn, the fabric and the garment. Each area has further been analyzed into following processes: (i) fiber: fineness, irregularities and length, (ii) yarn: number of plies, twist value and yarn count, (iii) fabric: dyeing, knitting/weaving, sizing agent, fabric structure, fabric density and finishing; and (iv) garment: industry and domestic washing and stated with potential solutions (Mermaids 2018).
Table of contents :
1.1 Problem statement
1.2 Purpose and Research Questions
2 Microplastics: The Situation of Today
2.1 A General Background
2.1.1 Sources and impacts
2.1.2 Initiatives for solutions
2.2 A Focus on Textiles
2.2.1 Sources and impacts
2.2.2 Initiatives for solutions
3 Textile design- and production process
4.3 Data Analysis
4.4 Ethical Considerations
5 Results and Analyses
5.1 Design process
5.2 Production process
6.1 Design process
6.2 Production process
6.3 Further considerations
Appendix 1 – Participants
Appendix 2 – Interview Guide
Outdoor Brands – Skype/Phone interview
Outdoor Brands – E-mail Questioner
Expert Panel – Skype/Phone interview