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UK Government Backs Textile Marine Pollution Research

The U.K. government is funding a new project that aims to minimize the apparel industry’s marine pollution problem.

University of Plymouth scientists received government funding to establish a new research project, which will analyze the impact of textiles, clothing, car tires and other discarded materials on the international marine environment. Thérèse Coffey, the British environment minister, pledged $271,360 to the scientists, who will explore how small plastic particles from tires, synthetic materials (such as polyester in apparel) and fishing gear enter global waterways and impact aquatic animals.

“The impact of plastic pollution on our oceans is one of the greatest environmental challenges of our generation. The U.K. is already leading the way in this area, but we want to go further—and faster,” Coffey said at the National Oceanographic Association’s annual conference in London. “But we can only act where there is robust evidence, and through this exciting project we will build on work underway to better understand how microplastics end up in marine environment and what we can do to tackle this in the future.”

The research project follows the U.K. government’s ban on microbeads and aims to further analyze how microplastics from garments and other products move to oceans, whether through fibers released into wastewater during laundering or from car-tire particles that make their way from roadways to water bodies via sewers.

The 11-month project will be led by Richard Thompson, who currently helms the University of Plymouth’s International Marine Litter Research Unit. The research project will add to the university’s previous study, which found that a single load of laundry can release up to 700,000 fibers into the marine environment. The study’s findings were based on identifying quantities of synthetic fibers and textiles released via combined sewage overflows, storm water runoff, airborne transport and treated effluent.

“With very limited real data available to confirm the impact from these sources, there is a genuine and pressing need to establish the true scale of this issue. By combining this with an assessment of the quantities of microplastic from synthetic textiles, we can develop a more complete picture on the relative importance of various sources,” Thompson said. “We will be able to use our findings to work with the government, scientists and industry to try to prevent these particles [from] entering the marine environment in the future.”

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With the project, the university will be able to further support the U.K. government’s other environmental efforts, including its 7-cent plastic-bag charge, which according to the University of Plymouth, has led to 9 billion fewer bags distributed across Great Britain. Other efforts include potential plans to end the sale of plastic-stem cotton buds, plastic stirrers and plastic straws in the near future. In addition, the project also supports the U.K. government’s 25-year environmental plan, which includes a commitment to remove avoidable plastic waste.