CIRFS Position Paper on man-made fibres and marine litter
Man-made fibres (MMF) are used in a large number of textile applications, ranging from clothing, home textiles to industrial and technical applications. Today, ca. 75% of the fibres used worldwide in the textile industry are MMF. Without man-made fibres it would be impossible to clothe the entire population and to develop most of the technical textile products with different specific functionalities allowing, amongst others, substantial savings in terms of energy and natural resources or emissions to the environment.
The European man-made fibres industry, represented by CIRFS, fully supports the fact that man-made fibre production processes and products should be sustainable from cradle to cradle, including use and end-of-life and that the impact on the environment should be reduced to a minimum.
For over a century man-made fibres have been processed in the textile industry without any significant concerns to human health. Such fibres are produced in Europe by specialist companies with a great degree of attention not only to the health and safety of their employees, but also to the consumer as well as the environment.
Over time, scientists have found that important amounts of plastic parts end up as waste in marine environments, where they degrade into microplastics, mainly through abrasion. Microplastics may also enter marine environments directly from different sources. More recent studies have suggested that synthetic microplastics could be found as debris in marine environments where they may even be ingested by marine species and enter into the food chain.
Human behaviour, inappropriate waste management and insufficient implementation and enforcement of legislation seem to be the main causes of this phenomenon. Thus, the incorrect disposal of certain textile leads them to enter land waters and marine environments where they can degrade into microplastics. Similarly, when laundering textiles, some small quantities of fibres, natural or man-made, may be shed through mechanical solicitation and even break down further. It appears that these microplastics may not be entirely retained by the filters of washing machines and end up in the sewage. Moreover, studies suggest that many filters in sewage plants may not be entirely efficient, providing for minor release. In addition, sewage sludges containing microplastics may not be properly disposed of.
As a matter of fact, there is no clear methodology to quantify nor to define the phenomenon, resulting in different and sometimes confusing measurements, in which e.g. natural or cellulosic fibres are mixed up with synthetic fibres and where other microplastic particles are mistakenly considered as particles of fibres used in textiles.
N.B.: In this context it is important to note that some man- made fibres are also biodegradable like natural fibres such as fibres made from cellulose. In the literature, cellulose fibres are called “regenerated” or “man-made” or “wood-based” cellulose fibres. The biodegradability of cellulosic fibres in relevant natural and “man-made” environments is verified by international standards and by certain international certification organizations. Hence they do not contribute to microplastic pollution.
Marine Litter is a global issue that needs global action. Regarding fibres, more than three-quarters of the man-made fibres and textile industry are located in Asia (88% of MMF are produced in Asia). A similar ratio applies to imports and production in Europe.
CIRFS has been encouraging to reduce waste in fibre production processes and after final use. It has been collaborating closely with the plastics industry and is a signatory of the Global Declaration on Marine Litter Solutions. Examples of actions undertaken in the man-made fibre sector are numerous, e.g. the recycling of waste PET bottles, the collection and recycling of waste fishing nets, old carpets or ropes into plastics and fibres.
CIRFS has also been advocating for textile production processes not to result in a spill of fibres ending up in rivers and oceans. End-of-life textiles should not be disposed of carelessly (e.g. old fishing nets or ropes should not be thrown into the sea, certain wipes not into the sink). Awareness raising campaigns among the public must be encouraged.
In washing machines, filters should be improved in order to retain microplastics, other catchers may be used as well. Other factors such as pre-washing, or the influence of temperature, detergent and fabric softener composition on fibre shedding should be further explored, too.
Correspondingly, filtration in sewage plants should be enhanced. Additional filters could be installed. Besides, sewage sludge should be handled and disposed of in a proper way.
There should be no marine litter, and if unavoidable, all efforts should be made to reduce it to a minimum. A structured approach is needed in order to take effective measures.
The issue is complex. As a first step and in order to quantify and assess the origin of textile fibres in marine environments, a reliable analytical method must be developed. Tests need to be undertaken under clean room conditions in order for them not to be biased. A clear distinction should be made between synthetic fibres used in textiles, and other kinds of microplastics. In addition, it should be examined why and how microplastics are carried into marine environments.
Marine litter and microplastics is a global phenomenon and must to be tackled at a global level, all stakeholders in the value chain until the final consumer and to the recycler being fully involved.
Each source of pollution may have its own roadmap for prevention. Appropriate human behaviour, improved infrastructure and processes and the implementation and enforcement of legislation are the key.