What you need to know about Microfibres

In a world where we’re literally drowning in plastic (did you know ‘single use’ was named ‘word of the year’ by the Oxford dictionary in 2018?!) it’s vital for all industries to find ways to re-use the plastic that’s already on this earth – I mean, where else are we going to put it? With this crisis in mind, part of our sustainability strategy is to consider the circular aspects of the materials we use, in this case, synthetic fibres made from regenerated materials like plastic bottles, nylon waste like fishing nets pulled from the ocean and pre and post-consumer waste etc – and how in doing so, we can become part of the solution.

#spelltravel to Kenya with @emelinaah in Lioness by Spell & The Gypsy Collective

So, what are the benefits of using fibres made from this kind of waste? Well firstly, USING ECONYL REGENERATE NYLON HELPS diverting it all from landfill and from our oceans and putting it to use. But there are other benefits too, for instance, using non-virgin materials saves resources like water and energy. An example is our use of ECONYL®, the innovative REGENERATED fibre we use in Spell Swim, for every 10,000 TONS of ECONYL raw materials 70,000 barrels of crude oil ARE SAVED and 57,100 tonnes of Co2 eq emissions ARE AVOIDED. And when it comes to climate change, using a regenerated fibre like ECONYL® reduces the global warming impact by up to 80% when compared to using virgin materials made from oil. 

OASIS | Spell & the Gypsy Collective
OASIS | Spell & the Gypsy Collective

Another exciting benefit of using a fibre regenerated from existing materials is that it’s infinitely recyclable without losing any quality. What that means is regenerated nylon is exactly the same quality as brand-new nylon and can be used again and again. Just to be clear though, if you blend the nylon with other materials like elastane (like in swim or active where usually elastane is used to give it stretch) then it’s not infinitely recyclable. This is one of the challenges for us right now, even though we’re using a potentially infinitely recyclable material, at the moment we’re unable to recycle a pair of swimmers or active once it reaches the end of its life, because it’s blended with more than 10% elastane. Which sucks. We’re now waiting for technology to catch up… watch this space.

But still – all signs point to recycled materials being part of the future when it comes to dealing with our global plastic crisis. But another issue has arisen in recent years which makes this issue ever more complex. Microfibres.

We are getting asked more and more about microfibres – how they’re shedding from clothing into our waterways and oceans and of course ways we can stop or at least minimise it. Microfibres are a really complex and much debated issue at the moment, not least because research in this area is still very much in its infancy stages. And though there is a lack of peer reviewed studies, here’s what we know, (and what we don’t know)…

Microfibres are pieces of plastic smaller than 5mm and enter the environment through shedding, when synthetic fibres are washed. So think your, your nylons, polyesters, recycled polyesters, acrylics, polar fleece etc. According to Textile Exchange, synthetics account for 68.3% of the global fibre production. And of this, the The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources  (IUCN) found that synthetic fibres account for 35% of the global release of primary microplastics into the world’s oceans. The size of these fibres are so small that they pass through washing machine filters and sewerage plants and enter our precious oceans and waterways.

The grim details:

The IUCN found that more than half a million metric tons of microfibres – the equivalent of 50 billion plastic water bottles – enter the oceans from the washing of synthetic textiles. How can that be right? Well according to the Plastic Soup Foundation, each 5-kilo wash can release between 600,000 and 17 million fibres!!!  When it comes to how many fibres are shed, it really depends on what kind of synthetic garment you’re talking about – research shows that a polyester fleece garment sheds the greatest amount, compared to say polyester fabric garment, like your swim or activewear.

SO what does all this mean? Unfortunately, microplastics cannot leave the ocean once they are there. They don’t break down! EVER! Additionally, our aquatic friends are ingesting these at an alarming rate which are being passed along the food chain. At this point in time there is no complete understanding of the effects of plastic on human and animal health. According to the Plastic Health Coalition, this is because the bulk of additives that make up plastic have not been tested from a health perspective!!! Scary. But if you look at the few that have, the results are not good at all. For example, research on endocrine disrupting chemicals shows direct evidence to have harmful effects on both human and animal life.   

The solutions?

There are organisations that are proactively supporting studies in this area, including Patagonia. 

So what can we as consumers do to minimise the output of microfibres when we’re washing our own garments? We have a few recommendations:

– Avoid machine washing synthetics that have fleecy, or loose fibres that are more likely to shed. (Things like acrylic knits, fleece coats, faux fur etc). Spot clean any fleecy garments when you can.

– Wash your synthetic clothing in any available microfibre bag and empty the lint into your rubbish bin.

– Dispose of lint filter from washer or dryer into bin rather than sink.

– Use liquid detergent instead of powder (less friction, less shedding)

– Do ‘full’ washes rather than half full washes, less space allows less friction and less potential shedding.

The conundrum:

One of the reasons we wanted to write about this topic, is to share our own journey and our own internal discussions around these issues.  When we talk about it being a complex issue it’s because as is the case in so many ‘sustainable solutions’ the answers are really never black and white. On one hand, microfibres make ‘natural fibres’ an excellent choice when it comes our preferred fibres. However achieving the desired quality for swim and activewear from natural fibres isn’t realistic. And natural fibres that aren’t sourced from sustainable sources also come with a myriad of social and environmental issues. So utilising recycled synthetics is the most sustainable option we have at this point in time. It’s far from perfect as whilst it certainly aims to reduce the global plastic crisis it unfortunately contributes to microfibres.

But fear not….. because for SPELL, we view recycled synthetics only as bridging solution to something far more sustainable….. Biosynthetics. What the hell are biosynthetics? I asked the same thing… Biosynthetics are major up and comers when it comes to development in this space (used in products like the Outerknown board shorts). Biosynthetics are made from natural or renewable resources, so no microplastics. None at all!! The principles of this technology, based on bio-mimicry, derives the same kind of polymer structure as plastic but through renewable resources – think corn starch for example so we are already using them in our bags. However, the reality is that the technology needs some time to achieve volume of commercial scale. 

And as for plastics, we really need a multisector approach whereby existing plastics are incorporated back back into a circular model but put into products that don’t contribute to Microplastics to the same extent as textiles. If you want to learn more please see the Ellen Macarthur Foundations work on the New Plastics Economy here.

Let us know what you think, post below, or let us know on the socials… we value your input so much when it comes to these complex issues around responsible sourcing. For now, we’re going celebrate our regenerated fibres, look to the bright north star of technological innovation, and in our personal lives, employ all the suggestions that help to minimise microfibres when washing our garments.

Excuse me while I go put my stretch jeans in the freezer.