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Unveiling The Hidden Environmental Impact Of Microplastics In Handmade Textiles

Mar 11, 2024 | Vidhi Siwal

Everyone is well aware of the environmental pollution and destruction caused by plastic. It has been more than decades of constant social awareness campaigns and inclusion in educational curriculums of “Plastic pollutes the environment”. Although a significant part of society is consciously taking steps to do something about the situation and creating a direct or indirect impact on the environment, most of those people are also unaware of all the forms of plastics to avoid. Fairly educated and consciously part of the population across the globe is unconscious sometimes even without a choice are surrounded by what are called ‘microplastics’. And these are far more dangerous than what the eye perceives. It's the iceberg that penetrated deep into the environment without knowledge or sight of the whole picture.

What are Microplastics?

According to National Geographic, microplastics are really small pieces of plastic, less than five millimetres across, even smaller than a pearl. There are two types: primary, which are made that size for things like cosmetics or come from textiles like clothing, and secondary, which come from bigger plastic items breaking down over time, like water bottles. The issue is, that they don't break down easily and can stick around for hundreds or thousands of years, causing a lot of problems. They end up in the ocean, where animals can eat them, and even in our drinking water.

Microplastics in Textiles

Tiny pieces of plastic, called microplastic fibres or microfibers, come from our clothes when we wash them. These bits are so small that they can easily get into the water. They're a big problem because they add to the pollution in our environment. Scientists have studied how many of these tiny fibres come off our clothes when we do laundry. They found that a lot of fibres can come off each piece of clothing, and it depends on what kind of fabric and detergent we use. Even though places that clean our dirty water try to catch these fibres, many still end up in rivers and oceans. This can be bad for sea animals that eat them accidentally, and it might even be bad for us too. We still need to learn more about these tiny plastic fibres so we can figure out how to stop them from causing harm.

Characteristics of Microfibers

Where does microplastics come from?

Primary Sources

  1. Synthetic Textiles: Tiny plastic fibres shed from synthetic clothing during washing contribute significantly to microplastic pollution.

  1. Vehicle tyres: When vehicles move, their tyres wear down, releasing microplastics. The European Union alone emits around 0.5 million metric tonnes of microplastics per year from tyre wear.

  1. City Dust: Urban areas produce microplastics from various sources such as artificial turf, building paints, and industrial abrasives, contributing to 10-20% of microplastic pollution.

  1. Personal Care Products: Microplastics, like microbeads, in products like exfoliants and cosmetics, also add to microplastic pollution, making up 1-2% of the total.

  1. Plastic Pellets: These pellets, used in manufacturing plastics, contribute to pollution through accidental losses during handling and production, accounting for 0.3% of microplastic pollution.

Secondary Sources

  1. Marine and Terrestrial Waste: Larger plastics like fishing gear and shipping waste break down into smaller microplastics over time, although it's hard to measure their exact contribution.

Statistics on Microplastics and Microfibers

According to a report published on First Sentier MUFG Sustainable Investment Institute

Microplastics and microfibers have been detected in nearly every ecosystem worldwide, spanning from the deep ocean to coastlines, Arctic seawater, freshwater bodies, soil, mountaintops, and even the air. Their presence is extensively documented, especially in marine environments, where they are notably abundant.

  • The Indian Ocean contains around 4 billion microfibers per square kilometre of sediment.

  • Over 90% of microplastic pollution in Arctic seawater is attributed to synthetic microfibers.

  • Polyester emerges as the most prevalent synthetic microfiber type in oceanic environments.

  • The Mediterranean Sea, despite its geographical distance from major pollution sources, harbours relatively high concentrations of microfibers, potentially due to its reduced water circulation.

Despite their small size, microplastics pose significant environmental concerns, threatening marine life and ecosystems globally. Efforts to mitigate their impact and prevent further pollution are essential for safeguarding the health of our planet.

Microplastic pollutions

  • Microplastic and microfiber pollution projections vary, with estimates suggesting that between 1 to 5.6 million metric tonnes could enter the environment annually, which could account for over 10% of global annual mismanaged plastic waste.

  • Global release of microplastics into the ocean is estimated to range from 0.8 to 2.5 million tonnes per year.

  • Despite these concerns, microplastic and microfiber pollution remains largely unregulated.

  • If not addressed, the growth in textile consumption is expected to worsen the situation, with a potential 54% increase in annual microfiber release into the environment by 2030.

  • An additional estimate suggests that around 22 million metric tonnes of synthetic microfibers could enter the environment by 2050.

  • Microplastic pollution is also expected to rise due to the increased production of microplastic sources like vehicle tyres and pre-production plastics over the next 15 years.

Fibre Release from Laundry

  • According to a recent study, washing 6 kg of laundry could release over 700,000 fibres into the water.

  • A previous study reported lower levels of fibre release in wash effluent, estimating approximately 100–300 fibres per litre in outgoing water from washing machines. However, this study lacked detailed information to fully quantify the amount of fibres released and did not use detergent in washing procedures, potentially leading to underestimated values.

The fate of Microplastics in Sewage Treatment Plants

  • Effluent from washing often ends up in sewage treatment plants in many countries.

  • Studies show that 70–99% of microplastic particles released in sewage effluent can be retained in sludge, with technologies like sand filters or membrane bioreactors playing a role in retention.

  • Despite these measures, microplastic fibres are still found in outgoing effluent, with reported levels exceeding 1770 particles per hour or approximately 0.009 particles per litre.

Organic Cotton: A Sustainable Solution to Microfiber Pollution

In the fight against microfiber pollution, organic cotton emerges as a promising solution due to its eco-friendly cultivation methods and natural properties. Let's delve into the technical details and environmental benefits of organic cotton:

Organic Cotton Cultivation

  1. Pesticide-Free Farming: Organic cotton is grown without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Instead, farmers rely on natural methods such as crop rotation, composting, and beneficial insects to maintain soil fertility and manage pests.

  2. Reduced Water Usage: Organic cotton cultivation typically requires less water than conventional cotton farming. Practices such as rainwater harvesting, drip irrigation, and mulching help conserve water and promote sustainable water management.

  3. Soil Health: By avoiding synthetic chemicals, organic cotton farming preserves soil health and biodiversity. It encourages the development of healthy soil microbiomes and minimizes soil erosion, contributing to long-term agricultural sustainability.

Environmental Benefits

  1. Microfiber Prevention: Organic cotton fibers are natural and biodegradable, posing minimal risk of contributing to microfiber pollution in water bodies. Unlike synthetic fibres, which shed microplastics during washing, organic cotton fibres break down naturally without harming the environment.

  2. Chemical-Free Processing: The processing of organic cotton into fabric involves minimal chemical inputs. Natural dyes and non-toxic finishes are used to reduce environmental impact and ensure the safety of workers and consumers.

  3. Carbon Sequestration: Organic cotton cultivation promotes carbon sequestration in soils, helping mitigate climate change by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Healthy soils act as a carbon sink, storing carbon and enhancing overall ecosystem resilience.

Technical Details

  1. Fiber Structure: Organic cotton fibers have a natural structure that makes them less prone to shedding compared to synthetic fibers. Their smooth surface and uniform texture contribute to reduced friction and abrasion during washing, minimizing the release of microfibers.

  2. Water Absorption: Organic cotton fibers have excellent moisture absorption properties, allowing them to absorb and retain water without becoming saturated. This characteristic helps prevent the accumulation of microplastics in aquatic environments by trapping particles within the fabric matrix.

  3. Durability and Longevity: Organic cotton fabrics are known for their durability and longevity, with fibers that withstand repeated washing and wear without significant degradation. This resilience reduces the likelihood of fiber shedding and extends the lifespan of garments and textiles.

Hemp: An Eco-Friendly Solution to Microfiber Pollution

In the quest to tackle microfiber pollution, hemp emerges as a sustainable alternative due to its natural properties and eco-friendly cultivation methods. Let's explore the simple facts and environmental benefits of hemp:

Hemp Cultivation

  • Low Environmental Impact: Hemp cultivation requires minimal pesticides and fertilizers compared to other crops, making it a cleaner option for the environment.

  • Water Efficiency: Hemp plants are naturally drought-tolerant and require less water than many other crops, reducing the strain on water resources.

  • Soil Health: Hemp has deep roots that help improve soil structure and prevent erosion, promoting soil health and biodiversity.

Environmental Benefits

  • Biodegradability: Hemp fibers are natural and biodegradable, meaning they break down easily without leaving harmful residues in the environment.

  • Minimal Shedding: Hemp fibers are sturdy and less prone to shedding compared to synthetic fibers, reducing the release of microplastics during washing.

  • Carbon Sequestration: Hemp cultivation absorbs large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping mitigate climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Technical Details

  • Fiber Density: Hemp fibers have a higher density than many other natural fibers, making them durable and less likely to break or shed during use.

  • Breakability: Hemp fibers are strong and resilient, with a high tensile strength that allows them to withstand repeated washing and wear without significant damage.

  • Loss of Fabric: Studies show that hemp fabrics experience minimal loss of fibers with each wash compared to synthetic fabrics, further reducing the release of microplastics into the environment.

Hemp's Contribution

  • Versatile Applications: Hemp fibers can be used in a wide range of textile products, from clothing and accessories to upholstery and home furnishings, offering a sustainable alternative to synthetic materials.

  • Positive Impact: By choosing hemp-based textiles, consumers can significantly reduce their contribution to microfiber pollution and support eco-friendly farming practices.

Bamboo: An Earth-Friendly Solution to Microfiber Pollution

In the effort to combat microfiber pollution, bamboo emerges as a sustainable option due to its natural attributes and eco-conscious cultivation practices. Let's delve into the basic facts and environmental advantages of bamboo:

Bamboo Cultivation

  • Rapid Growth: Bamboo is one of the fastest-growing plants on Earth, reaching maturity in just a few years. This rapid growth rate makes it a highly renewable resource.

  • Low Water Usage: Bamboo requires minimal water compared to other crops, making it a drought-resistant and water-efficient choice for cultivation.

  • No Pesticides: Bamboo grows naturally without the need for pesticides or fertilizers, reducing the environmental impact of cultivation.

Environmental Benefits

  • Biodegradability: Bamboo fibers are biodegradable, meaning they naturally break down over time without harming the environment or contributing to microfiber pollution.

  • Minimal Shedding: Bamboo fibers are strong and durable, resulting in less shedding during washing compared to synthetic fibers, thus reducing the release of microplastics.

  • Carbon Sequestration: Bamboo plants absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping mitigate climate change and reduce carbon emissions.

Technical Details

  • Fiber Strength: Bamboo fibers are known for their strength and resilience, making them suitable for a variety of textile applications. They can withstand repeated washing and wear without significant damage.

  • Softness: Bamboo fabrics are naturally soft and smooth, providing a luxurious feel and comfortable wearing experience for consumers.

  • Loss of Fabric: Studies indicate that bamboo fabrics experience minimal fiber loss during washing, further minimizing the release of microplastics into the environment.

Tencel (Lyocell): A Sustainable Solution to Microfiber Pollution

In the fight against microfiber pollution, Tencel, also known as Lyocell, emerges as an eco-conscious choice due to its unique characteristics and environmentally friendly production processes. Let's explore the key features and environmental benefits of Tencel:

Production Process

  • Closed-Loop System: Tencel is manufactured using a closed-loop process, where solvents are recycled and reused, resulting in minimal waste and environmental impact.

  • Eco-Friendly Solvents: The solvents used in Tencel production are non-toxic and biodegradable, ensuring that no harmful chemicals are released into the environment.

  • Sustainable Wood Source: Tencel fibers are derived from sustainably sourced wood pulp, often from eucalyptus trees, which require less water and land compared to traditional cotton farming.

Environmental Benefits

  • Biodegradability: Tencel fibers are biodegradable, meaning they can naturally decompose without leaving harmful residues in the environment, reducing the risk of microfiber pollution.

  • Low Energy Consumption: The production of Tencel requires less energy and water compared to other synthetic fibers, making it a more sustainable option for textile manufacturing.

  • Reduced Chemical Usage: Tencel production involves fewer chemicals and additives, resulting in cleaner waterways and safer working conditions for factory workers.

Technical Details

  • Fiber Strength: Tencel fibers are strong and durable, offering excellent tear resistance and longevity in textile applications.

  • Moisture Absorption: Tencel fibers have natural moisture-wicking properties, keeping the skin cool and dry, making them ideal for activewear and outdoor clothing.

  • Softness: Tencel fabrics are known for their silky-smooth texture and luxurious feel, providing comfort and style to consumers.

A consumer guide to avoid microplastics in textiles

  • Look for Certifications: Check for eco-friendly certifications such as GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) or OEKO-TEX Standard 100, which ensure that the clothing meets certain environmental and social criteria.

  • Sustainable Materials: Choose clothes made from sustainable materials like organic cotton, bamboo, Tencel, or recycled fibers, as these materials have a lower environmental impact compared to conventional fabrics.

  • Avoid Fast Fashion: Avoid buying from fast fashion brands that prioritize low prices and rapid turnover of styles, as this often leads to poor working conditions and environmental degradation.

  • Check Labels: Read clothing labels carefully to understand the materials used and look for information about sustainable practices such as ethical sourcing and fair labor practices.

  • Quality Over Quantity: Invest in high-quality clothing that is durable and long-lasting, rather than buying cheap, disposable items that contribute to waste and pollution.

  • Consider Secondhand: Explore secondhand and thrift stores for gently used clothing, which reduces the demand for new production and extends the lifespan of garments.

  • Wash Carefully: Follow care instructions on clothing labels to minimize energy and water usage during washing, and consider air-drying clothes instead of using a dryer to save energy.

  • Support Ethical Brands: Choose to support brands that prioritize sustainability and ethical practices throughout their supply chain, from sourcing raw materials to manufacturing and distribution.

  • Look for Sustainable Fabrics: Choose clothing made from sustainable fabrics such as organic cotton, hemp, bamboo, and Tencel, which have lower environmental impacts compared to conventional materials.

  • Consider Recycled Materials: Opt for clothing made from recycled fibers, such as recycled polyester or nylon, which help reduce the demand for virgin materials and minimize waste.

  • Evaluate Production Practices: Research brands to ensure they prioritize sustainable production practices, such as minimizing water usage, reducing chemical inputs, and implementing fair labor practices.

  • Assess Biodegradability: Select clothing that is biodegradable or compostable, as this ensures that garments can naturally decompose at the end of their lifespan without harming the environment.

  • Choose Renewable Resources: Look for clothing made from renewable resources like bamboo, which grows quickly and requires minimal water and pesticides to cultivate.

  • Prioritize Durability: Invest in high-quality clothing that is designed to last, as this reduces the need for frequent replacements and minimizes waste over time.

  • Support Transparency: Choose brands that are transparent about their supply chain and environmental practices, as this allows consumers to make informed decisions and hold companies accountable for their actions.


In conclusion, the pervasive issue of plastic pollution, particularly microplastics, continues to threaten our environment and ecosystems worldwide. Despite decades of awareness campaigns, many are still unaware of the various forms of plastics contributing to this crisis, including the insidious presence of microplastics. These tiny particles, measuring less than five millimeters, pose significant threats as they persist in the environment for hundreds or even thousands of years, infiltrating our oceans, waterways, and even our drinking water.

One major source of microplastics is synthetic textiles, with microplastic fibers shedding from our clothes during washing. These fibers, known as microfibers, add to the pollution in our environment and pose risks to marine life and ecosystems. While efforts are made to mitigate their impact, such as wastewater treatment, many fibers still find their way into rivers and oceans, perpetuating the cycle of pollution.

Organic cotton emerges as a promising solution to microfiber pollution due to its eco-friendly cultivation methods and natural properties. Grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, organic cotton preserves soil health and biodiversity while reducing water usage. Its biodegradable fibers break down naturally without harming the environment, offering a sustainable alternative to synthetic materials. Similarly, hemp, bamboo, and Tencel (Lyocell) also contribute to combating microfiber pollution through their renewable, biodegradable, and low-impact characteristics.

As consumers, we play a crucial role in addressing microplastic pollution by making informed choices and supporting sustainable practices. By opting for clothing made from organic cotton, hemp, bamboo, or Tencel, we can reduce our contribution to microfiber pollution and promote environmental conservation. Additionally, supporting ethical brands, choosing quality over quantity, and practicing responsible laundry habits can further minimize our impact on the environment.

In essence, the fight against microplastic pollution requires collective action and awareness at all levels of society. By prioritizing sustainable materials, supporting eco-friendly practices, and advocating for systemic change, we can work towards a cleaner, healthier planet for future generations. Let's embrace the power of choice and take proactive steps to preserve our precious environment for years to come.

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