A new study adds to evidence that textiles are an important source of marine microplastics pollution, estimating that in Europe between 500 and 2,500 tonnes of synthetic fibres are shed each year.

The study, carried out by the Nova-Institute and commissioned by the German Federal Environment Agency, also suggests that around 80 to 400 tonnes of microplastics per year in Germany are a result of synthetic fibre shedding.

Primary microplastics are directly manufactured as microscopic particles that are used in cosmetics and body care products, but also give textiles a smoother surface, making them easier to sew and protecting them longer against linting. Secondary microplastics are fragments of macroscopic plastic materials such as fibres that are washed out of man-made textiles such as polyester and elastane.

Man-made fibres from synthetic polymers are particularly relevant in the context of this study, the report says, noting that total production of synthetic fibres climbed from around 2.1m tonnes in 1950 to around 49.6m tonnes in 2010 – with a 59% share of the total fibre market.

It also cites studies that suggest around 260 fibres were shed from a fleece jacket, and around 150 from a shirt washed at 40°C at 600 revolutions per minute.

The study evaluates for the first time the relevance of different sources of microplastics for marine protection in Germany.

In total, it is estimated that each year between 6 and 10% of global plastics production ends up as marine litter. For Europe, this is equivalent to 3.4m to 5.7m tonnes of plastics that are a source of microplastics.

It can take centuries for plastics to degrade in the oceans through physical, chemical and biological processes.

“We are not only creating great challenges for the environment but also for future generations, since we do not know enough either about input paths and transport mechanisms of microplastics nor about direct and indirect consequences of their littering,” says Roland Essel, author of the study.

“Besides basic research, we have to make an effort and find solutions to limit plastic input in the environment,” he adds.

As well as suggesting that illegal waste disposal and ocean dumping should be pursued and penalised more severely, the research urges the plastics industry to help solve the problems with efficient production processes and reinforcing product responsibility.

Solutions for different sources of micro particles are also the focal point of an international conference on ‘Microplastic in the environment – Sources, Impacts & Solutions,’ taking place on 23-24 November 2015 at the Maternushaus, in Cologne, Germany.