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  • Writer's pictureDavid Connolly

Stemming the flow of microfibre fluff

The presence of microplastic particles has been scientifically established in the air, the oceans, freshwater, soil and rainfall. Textiles are believed to be responsible for 30% of the tiny fibres that blanket our planet. Research into this pervasive phenomenon is ongoing, as are solutions to capture the fluff in factories. No quick fix for fibre fragmentation, however.

In an industry that makes its goods primarily from cotton and manmade cellulosic fibres, adding in only a small proportion of elastane or a polyester-based stretch yarn, the release of microfibres into the environment may not be seen as an issue of concern. Cotton and other cellulose-based fibres are believed to be biodegradable, and it is expected that they will eventually decompose and disappear. Or so it is said, and tests tend to confirm.

But does this hypothesis hold up when a pair of miner’s pants in a fairly good condition is recovered from a shipwreck that had spent over a century under water? The button-fly trousers appear to have been as new, the auction house Holabird Western Americana Collections noted in its catalogue. They fetched $114,000 last February.

The miner’s pants were conceivably originally white, and the presence of synthetic dyestuffs can be ruled out as they were found in a ship that sank back in 1857. The auction house believes the black and brown markings are fugitive stains from the trunk and its other contents. Aside from that, its surprisingly solid state remains a mystery. It shows that a garment made from cotton will not always biodegrade in salt water as expected.

Tests to assess a material’s biodegradability are done in controlled conditions that do not replicate real-life situations, as seen. They are designed to accelerate the process of digestion by microorganisms but provide no guarantee that a textile will biodegrade in any random environment. Biodegradability is a complex topic, as is the related, and relatively new issue of microfibres escaping into nature from our clothes. The phenomenon was first identified in 2011, and research into its sources and possible solutions are slowly coming forward.

The Microfibre Consortium (TMC), a science-oriented research organisation based in the UK, is looking for answers. It recently released a report comparing fibre fragmentation from virgin polyester and recycled polyester fabrics. It tested 251 different textiles and found that mechanically recycled polyester does not have a more detrimental effect when compared to virgin polyester. There goes another commonly held belief.

Along with new insights into the issue of fibre leakage, a consensus on the use of terms is also emerging. ‘Fibre fragmentation’ is now considered preferable to ‘microfibre’, a word already in use in the textile industry, and to ‘microplastics’, which could lead to believe that cellulosic and natural fibres are not part of the problem.

Another positive development is that authorities, in the EU particularly, now distinguish between microplastics that are intentionally added to a product, such as those found in cosmetics, with those that are unintentionally released into the environment, which is the case in textiles. This indicates that future legislation may make the same distinction. As yet, few binding measures have been taken, with the exception of the mandatory equipment of microfibre filters on domestic washing machines from January 2025 in France.

Clothes shed fragments of fibres when worn and washed. If properly handled, adding filters to washing machines will no doubt help reduce this insidious form of pollution. But while home laundering is of concern, industrial laundering is arguably a greater source of fugitive fibres. Textile mills and denim laundries are presumably a source of unintentional leakage, but new solutions and guidelines to stem the flow early in the apparel making supply chain are in the works. The ZDHC Foundation, a Microfibre Consortium partner, has said that it will introduce specific recommendations for microfibres in the next iteration of its wastewater guidelines.

HKRITA, a textiles research centre based in Hong Kong, has developed a system to separate and remove tiny textile slivers from wastewater using sound waves in a project known as Acousweep, which received support from the H&M Foundation. Designed to connect to an existing sewage outlet, the device is said to be more effective than membrane-type filters that require regular replacement as the minuscule fibres tend to block their pores. A lab scale system that can treat 20 litres of water per hour has been built. A larger sized model is expected to be able to handle 5,000 to 10,000 litres of water per hour.

New solutions for finishing

Textile technology providers are also developing solutions to mitigate fibre loss during fabric manufacturing and garment finishing. The Multiplexed Laser Surface Enhancement (MLSE) system, by MTIX Limited, combines laser with plasma and various algorithms to remove microfibre fluff from the surface of a fabric after weaving.

The patented machine was one of the award winners of the Conservation X Labs’ Microfibre Challenge, a competition the British company entered with lifestyle brand Pangaia in 2022. “Our technology can remove up to 55% of microfibres in one pass,” Phil Mansour, chief executive of MTIX International, the owner of MTIX Limited, tells Inside Denim. The near waterless and chemical-free solution can also be used to prepare a textile for dyeing or to apply a water-repellent, fire-retardant or antibacterial finish. A specific algorithm needs to be created for each function and type of fabric, he says. The innovative technology also comes with a novel business model as MTIX installs the machine for free in a factory and charges a fee by metre processed. Mr Mansour points out that treating a fabric at the mill before dyeing would stem fibre migration further down the line and lift the load off consumers’ home laundering.

UK-based technology provider Xeros, a maker of laundry machines, has been developing special microfibre filters for domestic and industrial washing machines. “We are developing a range of filtration solutions based on our core technology that addresses microfibre pollution across all wet processes in the textile industry,” says Dr Paul Servin, company CSO. Xeros has recently partnered with the University of Surrey to explore the possibility of recycling the captured microfluff to make a new ‘carbon material’.

Jeanologia has also taken the issue to heart and developed a solution with the Air Fiber Washer. Officially launched at ITMA, it uses air, as its name implies, to force out loose microfibres from a garment before it is put for sale. It is designed to be installed in cut-and-sew facilities and received funding from Spanish fast fashion retailer Inditex. “The first wash is the one that releases the most microfibres. During manufacturing, loose fibres tend to stay in a fabric or garment, and these will only come out when the item is washed,” says Begoña Garcia, project manager at Jeanologia. The patented device sends air through a specially designed polyhedric drum and is said to dislodge up to 60% of the loose microfibres.

As opposed to makers of fleece knits, denim manufacturers may have not yet felt pressed to address this issue, but legislation and growing awareness among brands and consumers may tip the balance. Some 83 companies have joined TMC’s Microfibre 2030 Commitment, and these include denim industry names such as PVH, Gap Inc., Isko, Bestseller, C&A and H&M. It is a sign that they feel some concern and are looking to address unintentional microfibre release. Treating fabrics upstream would no doubt be a useful solution to capture the minuscule loose ends that we, like all living species, breathe in and ingest unintentionally every day. No sign of biodegradation after 166 years. The steamer S.S. Central America sank during a hurricane on its way from Panama to New York City in 1857. It was found in 1988 off the coast of North Carolina. In addition to the thousands of pounds of gold the ship was transporting, there were many items of clothing and, particularly of interest, a pair of men’s work pants.

Original article: here

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