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New Study Questions Whether Natural Fibers Are Better for the Environment

Researchers in the United Kingdom are wondering just how “natural” so-called natural fibers really are.

A year-long study of more than 200 freshwater and atmospheric samples, gathered from over a dozen local rivers and rooftops, has revealed a “much higher” percentage of natural fibers than microplastic ones, according to experts from University of Nottingham’s School of Geography and the Faculty of Engineering Food, Water, Waste Research Group.

Microplastic fibers, they note in an upcoming issue of the journal Science of the Total Environment, were present in 17.2 percent of the samples they collected from 10 sites from the Rivers Trent, Leen and River Soar, and four roofs of the university’s U.K. teaching campuses. “Natural” textile fibers, including cotton and wool, on the other hand, reared their heads in 90.3 percent.

“One of the most prevalent forms of plastic pollution, and one that has been widely reported in the media, is synthetic textile fibers such as polyester, nylon and acrylic,” Tom Stanton, lead researcher on the study and a Papplewick Pumping Station Water Education Trust Scholar, said in a statement. “These fibers are made from plastic polymers and enter the environment in a number of ways, but most infamously in washing-machine effluent. Concern over this emission of microplastic pollution has led some to favor clothing made from natural fibers such as cotton and wool.”

But the methods used to process natural fibers are often the product of multiple potentially hazardous processes that are “inherently unnatural,” Standon said.

“The production of cotton is incredibly water intensive, and the methods used to process natural fibers often introduce a myriad of harmful chemicals into waters used for bathing and drinking,” he explained. “Moreover, the processing of natural fibers is often carried out in dangerous, exploitative working conditions.”

Stanton and his colleagues say they don’t have an explanation for the preponderance of natural fibers they found in river water and atmospheric deposition. Nor do they know what impact this might have on the environment or wildlife. Certainly there are more questions than answers, particularly over the issue of biodegradability.

“What do we really know about the alternatives we are using in our efforts to curb plastic pollution?” Stanton asked. “Much more needs to be done, before we can confidently say which of the alternatives available to us are the best for our planet.”