We assume that washing our clothing on delicate, cold cycles will be the most sustainable way to keep our clothes from smelling, our washing machines from sitting idle and the best way to keep our favourite clothes in shape after the dreaded spin cycle.

But in a world first, scientists from the Institute for Polymers, Composites and Biomaterials of the National Research Council of Italy (IPCB-CNR) and the University of Plymouth, compared four different items of polyester clothing and how many fibres were released when they were washed at 40 degrees, or worn.

The results? In a conventional wash, up to 4,000 fibres per gram of fabric could be released. However, in just 20 minutes of normal activity 400 fibres per gram could be shed. This means that one person could release almost 300million polyester microfibres per year to the environment by washing their clothes, and more than 900million to the air just by wearing the garments.

Dr Francesca De Falco, Research Fellow at IPCB-CNR and lead author on the current research, said: “This is a type of pollution that should be mainly fought at its source, the fabric itself. Results have shown that textiles with a compact structure like woven, with yarns highly twisted and composed of continuous filaments, can release less microfibres to both air and water.”

Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the University of Plymouth’s International Marine Litter Research Unit, was a senior author on the current study and gave evidence to both the UK Government’s Sustainability of the Fashion Industry inquiry and the recent OECD Forum on due diligence in the garment and footwear sector.

Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the University of Plymouth’s International Marine Litter Research Unit, was a senior author on the current study and gave evidence to both the UK Government’s Sustainability of the Fashion Industry Inquiry and the recent OECD Forum on due diligence in the garment and footwear sector.

“The key story here is that the emission of fibres while wearing clothes is likely of a similar order of magnitude as that from washing them. That constitutes a substantial and previously unquantified direct release to the environment. Many of the current issues associated with the environmental impacts of plastic stems from a lack of holistic thinking at the design stage. The crucial message here is highlighting the importance of sustainable design for the fashion industry.”

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