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Apparel Industry Accounts for One-Third of Microfiber Pollution, New Report Says

The U.K.’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers is calling for action to prevent what it claims are 6 million microfibers released from a typical wash load of polyester fabrics from polluting the oceans.

That six million accounts for nearly 35 percent, or more than one-third of the microfiber waste found in the world’s oceans.

The Institution’s new report, “Engineering Out Fashion Waste,” says curbing the problem will take creating incentives to develop more environmentally friendly fibers, and tackling the issue of clothing waste, such as the large amounts of apparel that are disposed in landfills every year.

According to the report, up to 700,000 microscopic fibers make their way into the waste stream and ultimately waterways and oceans each time an item of clothing is washed. There, the report and scientists have charged, they are ingested by sea life and become incorporated into the food chain and ingested. The claim is one that’s been made by others in the past, and also disputed by the apparel industry as unproven.

Regardless, the problem is present and it demands a solution.

“We need to build on existing industry initiatives and fundamentally rethink the way clothes are manufactured, right down to the fibers that are used,” said Aurelie Hulse, lead author of the report. “Garments should be created so they don’t fall apart at the seams and so that they can be recycled after they have been worn for many years. Fabrics should be designed not to shed microfibers when washed and industry needs look at how efficiencies can be made in the cutting process.”

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The report highlights that garment aftercare affects an item’s carbon footprint and advocates for people to wash their clothes at a lower temperature, use mesh laundry bags to catch threads, rely on tumble dryers less often or install filters on washing machine waste pipes. The report also cites the fashion industry’s use of water in both volume and effluent discharge, and its energy-intensive processes that produce an estimated 1.2 billion tons of CO2 equivalent.

Attempting to make an attainable plan of action for the industry, the report recommends some key priority areas. For one, the government, in collaboration with the fashion industry, should invest in initiatives that provide incentives for the development of more environmentally friendly fibers, and develop a comprehensive framework to tackle “greenwashing” or false sustainability claims. From there, there should be an additional focus on creating mechanical and chemical fiber recycling technologies, particularly to separate blended fibers.

“The garment industry is one of many industries that has a three-fold impact with emissions to air, water and large amounts of waste produced for landfill and incineration,” Dr. Jenifer Baxter, head of Engineering at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said. “This means that to begin to create a sustainable fashion industry we need to address all of these areas and engineers are producing solutions that range from greater efficiency in machinery and water use to new materials with reduced shedding. Given that it has been estimated that there are 20 new garments manufactured per person each year and that consumers are buying 60 percent more than in 2000, these environmental implications must be addressed as a matter of urgency.”