Many in the industry have stressed in recent months that during and after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, it is vital to maintain and expand sustainable efforts so that environmental problems don’t become the next global crisis.
That’s just what Dr. Jan Beringer, senior scientific expert at the Hohenstein Institute, did last month during a virtual Functional Fabric Fair webinar on “Microfiber Analysis for More Sustainable Product Development.”
Beringer discussed the results of a recent Hohenstein study on the problem of microfiber plastics that come from the shedding of particles from synthetic fibers such as polyester and nylon after water from industrial and home washing go into the waste stream and ultimately the food chain.
Using dynamic image analysis, particles were identified on a microscopic level in a wastewater stream from an industrial laundry. The materials were chemically treated to separate cellulosic fibers like cotton from petroleum-based ones like polyester that were found in the water.
Washing and analyzing 100 percent virgin polyester fabric, Hohenstein found fiber-shaped debris and some cotton fiber that came from machinery that had residual fibers that made it into the polyester fabric during processing.
“About 10 percent of the materials we found was fiber-nature debris and the rest was particle debris that came from contamination in the fabric processing,” Beringer said. “Polyester is statically charged, so it attracts everything that is floating around.”
The study also found that the finer the polyester yarn, the higher the shedding behavior and the more coarse the yarn or fiber, the less the shedding, he noted.
Investigating the ratio of cotton and polyester shedding during the washing process using a polyester and cotton blended fabric, Hohenstein discovered that between 85 percent and 90 percent of the fiber particles examined were cotton, and only about 10 percent to 15 percent was polyester.
“So, the fiber that definitely has a worse shedding behavior was cotton, but cotton definition is not a plastic, so it can’t shed microplastic particles,” Beringer said. “If you want to really engineer fabrics and look into your yarn and fabric construction, you need to know what debris they might shed in an effort to avoid microplastics and microfiber shedding.”
He said there needs to be a systematic investigation of fiber release versus environmental impact based on textile construction, which can only happen by many groups an organizations in the industry working together toward a solution. They key, he said, is wastewater treatment, such as commercializing and making widely available an existing technology that can filter out 100 percent of particles at the treatment plant level.
“We have the technologies available to fully overcome the issue of microplastic emissions in the environment,” Beringer said. “It’s all about the wastewater treatment.”