Natural and regenerated cellulose such as cotton and viscose are the main textile microfibres found in south European marine floors, according to a new study, with around one-fifth of particles accumulated in the open sea at depths of more than 2,000 metres.
The study, led by researchers at the University of Barcelona, quantified the presence of textile microfibres in an area stretching from the Cantabrian Sea to the Black Sea. They analysed the amount of these coloured fibres, which vary between 3-8mm in length but less than 0.1mm in diameter, which come mainly from home and industrial washing machines.
The results show the dominance of cellulosic fibres over synthetic polymers, and highlight that several oceanographic processes pile and transport microfibres to marine hollows.
“Some of these synthetic microfibres are made of plastic, which does not degrade shortly, it can contain chemical additives, which can be easily incorporated to the trophic network,” the researchers Anna Sánchez Vidal, William P de Haan and Miquel Canals highlighted in the University of Barcelona study, which was published in the scientific journal Plos One.
In this latest study, the main type of microfibre they found in marine floors is the natural cellulose (cotton and linen) and regenerated cellulose (rayon or viscose), coming from clothes and industrial textiles mainly.
Microfibers are one of the most common microplastics in the marine environment, but such a deep study had not been carried out so far in a large area. Researchers analysed soil samples from 42 and 3,500 meters deep in 29 stations in southern European seas. The results show that higher densities of fibre were found in the Cantabrian Sea, followed by the Catalan seas and the Alboran Sea, respectively, while lower densities were found in the western Mediterranean and the Black Sea.
The study also found that distance in deep seas is not a barrier to the accumulation of microfibres, since about 20% of these particles are accumulated in the open sea beyond 2,000 meters deep.
“Textile microfibres seem to concentrate at the bottom of submarine canyons, while the quantity in the slope is significantly lower. This suggests microfibres, probably coming from the ground (a washing machine can release up to 700,000 microfibres to waste waters in one use), are accumulated in the continental platform, from where they are swept and taken by several oceanographic processes to marine hollows through the natural conducts -marine canyons,” says Anna Sánchez Vidal, from the Department of Earth and Ocean Dynamics.
The findings also confirm previous studies that detected microfibres that were ingested by deep water organisms in a natural environment.
The researchers hope the study will help in the design of effective management strategies to reduce the emission of microfibres with a potential negative effect on the marine ecosystems. “We need to advance in research and innovation in the textile industry, in the design of effective filters for washing machines, in the treatment of waste waters, and the promotion of sustainable clothing,” concludes Sánchez Vidal.
The fashion industry is a major contributor to plastic pollution, shedding tonnes of tiny plastic microfibres into the oceans via washing machines every year. These fibres are so small they pass through water treatment facilities and end up in the food chain when they are swallowed by small sea creatures.
Recent developments to try to tackle the issue have seen research carried out in Sweden, with input from three brands including H&M, recommend a standardised test method for measuring microfibres shed during the washing of garments. And Asda has become the first supermarket retailer to join the Microfibre Consortium, which is seeking to reduce the impact of microplastics on the environment.
Textile microfibre pollution has also been found in the Antarctic, and the UK government launches microplastics research project to analyse the impact of clothing on the marine environment.