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Managing Editor  | July 2017

Empa researchers publish study of microfibers released during washing

Researchers at Empa, the Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology in Dubendorf, Switzerland, have published a quantitative study of microfibers released from polyester textiles during a wash cycle, according to a report on the Empa website.



Dr. Bernd Nowack led the team of researchers in the study of microfibers. (Empa)


The researchers studied the impact of different washing agents, water temperatures, and the number and length of wash cycles on the release of the microfibers.


This study is the first part of a larger examination of microplastics, how they are generated, and how they come to be in the oceans or in wastewater.


According to the Empa report, “To date, the study is the most meticulous and systematic investigation of the release of microfibers from textiles that has ever been carried out. This applies both to the quantity of parameters investigated and to the characterization of the released fibers in terms of number and length.”


The researchers discovered that the quantity of fibers released was consistent over five different washing cycles, while the use of washing agents increased the release of microfibers. The study also determined that temperature and duration of the wash cycle had no effect on the microfibers released.


Researchers admitted that they are still unclear about how microfibers are released, as it was assumed that the longer textiles were washed then the more microfibers would be released. A follow-up study is being planned that will examine different types of materials.


The research was recently published in Environmental Science & Technology. The abstract stated:


“Microplastic fibers make up a large proportion of microplastics found in the environment, especially in urban areas. There is good reason to consider synthetic textiles a major source of microplastic fibers, and it will not diminish since the use of synthetic fabrics, especially polyester, continues to increase. In this study we provide quantitative data regarding the size and mass of microplastic fibers released from synthetic (polyester) textiles during simulated home washing under controlled laboratory conditions.


“Consideration of fabric structure and washing conditions (use of detergents, temperature, wash duration, and sequential washings) allowed us to study the propensity of fiber shedding in a mechanistic way. Thousands of individual fibers were measured (number, length) from each wash solution to provide a robust data set on which to draw conclusions.


“Among all the variables tested, the use of detergent appeared to affect the total mass of fibers released the most, yet the detergent composition (liquid or powder) or overdosing of detergent did not significantly influence microplastic release.


“Despite different release quantities due to the addition of a surfactant (approximately 0.025 and 0.1 mg fibers/g textile washed, without and with detergent, respectively), the overall microplastic fiber length profile remained similar regardless of wash condition or fabric structure, with the vast majority of fibers ranging between 100 and 800 μm in length irrespective of wash cycle number.


“This indicates that the fiber staple length and/or debris encapsulated inside the fabric from the yarn spinning could be directly responsible for releasing stray fibers.


“This study serves as a first look toward understanding the physical properties of the textile itself to better understand the mechanisms of fiber shedding in the context of microplastic fiber release into laundry wash water.”

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