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Plastic Microfibres - Problem or Opportunity?

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Maria Coronado Robles Bio

Plastic microfibres from synthetic clothes such as polyester, acrylic and nylon are increasingly seen as a major source of microplastic pollution in our oceans, even more than microbeads from beauty and personal care products, which have already been banned in some countries. This fact brings new challenges but also creates huge opportunities for technological innovation in ingredients in both the apparel and home care industries.

Combating pollution

The recent North American ban on plastics microbeads in cosmetic products is proof of the growing attention being paid to environmental issues and, especially, to the accumulation of microplastics in the ocean. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg since scientists have discovered that 84% of the microplastic found in the ocean comes from the laundry of synthetic clothes in automatic washing machines, with synthetic garments releasing as many as 1,900 fibres per washing cycle.

The increasing use of washing machines globally, with penetration forecast to grow at a CAGR of 3% in the 2015-2020 period - mainly driven by increasing demand in Asia Pacific - is expected to exacerbate the problem. Unlike what’s happened to the beauty and personal care industry, however, a potential ban on plastic microfibres in apparel doesn’t seem a realistic option, as the clothing industry is considerably larger than the cosmetics industry, and synthetic clothes play a very important role within the industry. Also, the replacement of synthetic fibres in textiles is not as straightforward as in the case of plastic microbeads in cosmetics.

No doubt, however, it’s just a matter of time before governments start taking action seeking to protect the environment with the introduction of guidelines and recommendations for the use of ingredients that increase fibre strength and decrease fibre mobility during washing. In fact, The LIFE-MERMAID project co-financed by the European Life+ 2013 programme, with a partnership between the Italian National Research Council, POLYSISTEC, LEITAT and the Plastic Soup Foundation, is studying the effect of textile fibres and laundry detergent composition on ocean pollution. Preliminary results show that some detergent additives can be aggressive to fibres, while certain detergent ingredients, as well as some textile finishing treatments, can minimise the release of fibres.

According to Dr Maurizio Avella, project manager of LIFE-MERMAID, “Products containing powder oxidising agents such as percarbonate produce higher fibre release, while the use of special detergents for delicate and synthetic fabrics and the use of softening agents, from both from textile finishing and detergents, produce lower fibre release. However, results are not conclusive yet, and researchers are uncertain whether the negative effect is due only to the oxidising agent or the combination of powder product and alkaline pH in the same formulation. The research is still ongoing and more additives are currently under analysis.”

From problem to opportunity

A potential solution currently being explored by researchers is the use of acrylic resins, polyurethane dispersions and silicone macro-emulsion products in fibre finishing treatments to increase fibre resistance during repetitive washing. Another solution is focused on studying how some of the ingredients in liquid, powder and specialist laundry detergents from leading companies such as Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Henkel - which together account for over 50% in volume of the world laundry detergent market - as well as eco products and generic brands, can increase or decrease the release of microfibres in the water after a number of washes.

Polyester, which is the main synthetic fibre used in the textile industry, is sensitive to alkaline hydrolysis, with temperature accelerating the chemical damage. However, most commercial detergents contain alkaline agents such as sodium carbonate and bicarbonate, sodium hydroxide, or sodium silicate to remove soil, oils and fats. Research suggests that the use of alkaline detergents can release on average nine times more microplastic fibres from polyamide and polyester yarns when compared to distilled water. In addition to alkalinity, powder laundry detergents - which remain the predominant type in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East and Africa, accounting for 81%, 86% and 93% in volume terms respectively within the global automatic laundry detergent market - usually contain sodium percarbonate, a granulated bleaching agent that in combination with alkalinity is currently being targeted as a potential contributor to microfibre release.

Legislation is likely to be introduced which will affect ingredients manufacturers in the medium to long term, especially in regions with significant environmental concerns. Ingredients companies need to seek innovative solutions that go beyond simple compliance with current environmental policies in order to remain competitive and to ensure continuing market leadership. Further investment in research and development is needed to produce more environmentally-friendly synthetic fibres and laundry detergent formulations that do not compromise on functionality.

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