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Textile industry weaving and warping. © Shutterstock

Textile industry weaving and warping. © Shutterstock

The Fibre Loss Risk Assessment (FLoRA)

Addressing microplastic fibre loss in the textile industry


Tool Pollution

What do synthetic fleeces, LYCRA sportswear and faux fur fluffy slippers all have in common? They all shed tiny synthetic fibres, also called microplastic fibres or microfibres (typically <5 mm in sizei) throughout their life-cycle. Once lost to the environment these fibres contaminate the air, sea, freshwater and land, and can harm wildlife and human health.

Pollution from microplastic fibres is prolific, and the problem is expected to worsen as global consumption of synthetic textiles continues to rise. Today, a staggering 70% of clothes are made of synthetic fibresiii. Synthetic materials, such as polyester, elastane and nylon are plastics made from fossil fuels and these materials have risen in popularity because they are cheap, durable and versatile. However, these same properties mean that once lost to the environment they can persist for several decades. In parallel, their micro size makes it nearly impossible to retrieve shed fibres from the environment.

Equally, the small size and bioavailability of microplastics poses a significant and severe threat to biodiversityiv. Concentrations of microplastic fibres have been found to be comparable in the deep sea and surface waterv, affecting species throughout the water column. Further, microplastic particles can transfer from sea water to the air via wind and wave actionvi, and on land, the presence of microplastics can impact soil communities and the wider ecosystemvii.

In the ocean, microplastic fibres interact with many organisms, such as deep sea benthic (bottom) feedersv, commercial fish speciesviii, and have been found in penguin faecesix, seabirdsx and charismatic speciesxi. Exposure to microplastic fibres can reduce feedingxii, deplete overall healthxiii, resilience and fertilityxiv, and expose species to toxins and pollutants associated with microplastics in the environmentxv, xvi. This can have a cascading effect across the food chainxvii, including potential risks to human health via dietary exposure xviii,xix.

Pathways to the environment

Microplastic fibres can reach the environment via several pathways. Fibres shed from textiles at every phase of a product’s life: beginning at the production stage, the use phase when clothes are worn and washed, and at end-of-life when clothes are disposed. Laundry of synthetic textiles is estimated to contribute one-third of global primary microplastic (plastics that start life in the microplastic size range) loss to the oceanxx, and research indicates that the majority of microplastic fibre loss occurs during the first few washes of a new garmentxxi. Hence, fast fashion that is typically made of synthetic materials and is often low-quality, can account for high levels of fibre loss because garments are used for a short-time and therefore account for a high share of first washes xxii.

Plastic fibres in tumble dryer lint. © Scorsby/Shutterstock

Plastic fibres in tumble dryer lint. © Scorsby/Shutterstock

Plastic fibres in tumble dryer lint.

What’s the solution?

When Fauna & Flora launched its Marine Plastics programme back in 2012, the overall objective was to work collaboratively with a broad range of stakeholders to find upstream, practicable solutions that would tackle sources of microplastic pollution to reduce the threat to biodiversity. Given the prevalence and bioavailability of microplastic fibres in the ocean, we decided to build on our long history of working with industry and complex supply chains to explore the issue more fully and identify an opportunity to engage.

It was a steep learning curve! Textile manufacturing supply chains are vast, complex, and far from linear. Microplastic pollution is just one of many sustainability issues facing the sector and different businesses operate with vastly different resources and capacity.

We also learnt that many of the solutions to prevent microplastic fibre loss that have been trialled to date have largely focused on end-of-pipe solutions either aimed at the consumer, such as adding filters to domestic laundry machines and providing washing guidelines, or on improved wastewater treatment. However, it is estimated that 50% of all microfibre shedding occurs at the production phasexxiii, meaning that mitigation measures at this stage can have a significant, positive impact if implemented across the supply chain. For example, adaptations and innovations that target the design and production stages, and adoption of best practices to mitigate industrial fibre emissions (e.g., pre-washing all garments) will help to reduce microplastic fibre loss at sourcexxiv. Further, a triple-pronged attack to minimise fibre loss at the production, use, and end-of-life phases would have the greatest impactxxv, along with a commitment to reduce overall production, manufacture durable garments, and make fast fashion out of fashionxxvi.

Mitigating risk means understanding risk

A fundamental evolution and systemic change needs to occur in the fashion industry to mitigate the risk of microplastic fibre pollution. Currently, this is being driven by a rise in consumer awareness and demand for sustainable products. Additionally, regulations aimed at tackling microfibre pollution are being considered in a number of places, including the European Union and under the auspices of the Global Plastics Treaty to end plastic pollutionxxvii.

Forward-thinking companies are already working towards fibre loss mitigation, and there are some early-stage initiatives, such as that led by Forum for the Future Asia and The Microfibre Consortium. However, for brands and manufacturers to meet consumer demands, be on the front foot and avert risk, they initially require guidance on how to identify the risk of microplastic fibre loss at all stages of the production supply chain, to then improve practices. After all, if a garment is to be deemed sustainable, there need to be commitments throughout the supply chain to ensure garments have low environmental impact and are traceable back to the source.

Introducing FLoRA: Fauna & Flora’s Fibre Loss Risk Assessment toolkit

To contribute to the wider efforts to tackle microplastic fibre pollution at source, Fauna & Flora has consulted a broad range of companies and stakeholders and co-developed a Fibre Loss Risk Assessment (FLoRA) toolkit to provide companies across textile manufacturing supply chains with an entry-level insight into the risk that their operations face with respect to fibre loss, with the aim of helping companies identify where mitigation measures are needed to ensure that they remain a step-ahead of the curve.

FLoRA is a toolkit for yarn, textile and garment manufacturers looking to understand and address microplastic fibre loss at any given facility and a broad range of processes. It takes a holistic view of possible sources of microplastic fibre loss and pathways to the environment and provides an indication of the risk of fibre loss from different processes, for different businesses and facilities.

The FLoRA toolkit has been created in collaboration with textile manufacturers and professionals and provides the user with an indicative risk rating for both facility-level assessments and individual process-based assessments. As a crucial first step to understanding risk, the toolkit does not aim to quantify loss rates and instead signposts the user to other initiatives which focus more on quantifying loss wherever possible.

FLoRA Microplastic fibre loss risk assessment

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FLoRA - Supporting document

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The FLoRA toolkit consists of two interrelated parts that should be used together. The documents are:

  1. The Fibre Loss Risk Assessment (FLoRA) – This is an open-source, Excel-formatted Risk Assessment intended to be an accessible entry point for all stakeholders in textile and garment manufacturing supply chains.
  2. The FLoRA Supporting Document – This provides supplementary material to be used alongside the risk assessment. It provides an overview of points and procedures identified as at risk of fibre loss throughout the supply chain. Where possible, the supporting document provides signposting to recommended interventions, best practice loss prevention and/or mitigation measures and links to emerging solutions and useful resources.

FLoRA is freely available and is intended to complement other initiatives as they are developed. As research in this space and global and national level legislation increases, mitigation techniques and developments in best practice guidance should become more widely available. Fauna & Flora invites users of the toolkit to share their interventions and solutions with us so that we can update information accordingly.

i United Nations Environment Programme. Microplastics. Available here.
ii Persson, L., Carney Almroth, B.M., Collins, C.D., Cornell, S., De Wit, C.A., Diamond, M.L., Fantke, P., Hassellöv, M., MacLeod, M., Ryberg, M.W. and Søgaard Jørgensen, P., 2022. Outside the safe operating space of the planetary boundary for novel entities. Environmental science & technology, 56(3), pp.1510-1521.
iii Changing Markets Foundation (2021). Synthetics Anonymous – Fashion Brands’ addiction to fossil fuels. Available here.
iv Wright, S.L., Thompson, R.C. and Galloway, T.S., 2013. The physical impacts of microplastics on marine organisms: a review. Environmental pollution, 178, pp.483-492.
v Courtene-Jones, W., Quinn, B., Gary, S.F., Mogg, A.O. and Narayanaswamy, B.E., 2017. Microplastic pollution identified in deep-sea water and ingested by benthic invertebrates in the Rockall Trough, North Atlantic Ocean. Environmental pollution, 231, pp.271-280.
viv Allen, S., Allen, D., Moss, K., Le Roux, G., Phoenix, V.R. and Sonke, J.E., 2020. Examination of the ocean as a source for atmospheric microplastics. PloS one, 15(5), p.e0232746.
vii Boots, B., Russell, C.W. and Green, D.S., 2019. Effects of microplastics in soil ecosystems: above and below ground. Environmental science & technology, 53(19), pp.11496-11506.
viii Harikrishnan, T., Janardhanam, M., Sivakumar, P., Sivakumar, R., Rajamanickam, K., Raman, T., Thangavelu, M., Muthusamy, G. and Singaram, G., 2023. Microplastic contamination in commercial fish species in southern coastal region of India. Chemosphere, 313, p.137486.
ix Bessa, F., Ratcliffe, N., Otero, V., Sobral, P., Marques, J.C., Waluda, C.M., Trathan, P.N. and Xavier, J.C., 2019. Microplastics in gentoo penguins from the Antarctic region. Scientific reports, 9(1), p.14191. Bessa, F., Ratcliffe, N., Otero, V., Sobral, P., Marques, J.C., Waluda, C.M., Trathan, P.N. and Xavier, J.C., 2019. Microplastics in gentoo penguins from the Antarctic region. Scientific reports, 9(1), p.14191.
x Caldwell, A., Brander, S., Wiedenmann, J., Clucas, G. and Craig, E., 2022. Incidence of microplastic fiber ingestion by common terns (Sterna hirundo) and roseate terns (S. dougallii) breeding in the Northwestern Atlantic. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 177, p.113560.
xi López‐Martínez, S., Morales‐Caselles, C., Kadar, J. and Rivas, M.L., 2021. Overview of global status of plastic presence in marine vertebrates. Global Change Biology, 27(4), pp.728-737.
xii Watts, A. J., Urbina, M. A., Corr, S., Lewis, C., & Galloway, T. S. (2015). Ingestion of plastic microfibers by the crab Carcinus maenas and its effect on food consumption and energy balance. Environmental science & technology, 49(24), 14597-14604.
xiii Von Moos, N., Burkhardt-Holm, P., & Köhler, A. (2012). Uptake and effects of microplastics on cells and tissue of the blue mussel Mytilus edulis L. after an experimental exposure. Environmental science & technology, 46(20), 11327-11335.
xiv Galloway, T. S., & Lewis, C. N. (2016). Marine microplastics spell big problems for future generations. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 113(9), 2331-2333.
xv Wang, F., Wong, C.S., Chen, D., Lu, X., Wang, F. and Zeng, E.Y., 2018. Interaction of toxic chemicals with microplastics: a critical review. Water research, 139, pp.208-219.
xvi Vo, H.C. and Pham, M.H., 2021. Ecotoxicological effects of microplastics on aquatic organisms: a review. Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 28, pp.44716-44725.
xvii Saeedi, M., 2023. How microplastics interact with food chain: a short overview of fate and impacts. Journal of Food Science and Technology, pp.1-11.
xviii Hantoro, I., Löhr, A.J., Van Belleghem, F.G., Widianarko, B. and Ragas, A.M., 2019. Microplastics in coastal areas and seafood: implications for food safety. Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A, 36(5), pp.674-711.
xix World Health Organization, 2022. Dietary and inhalation exposure to nano-and microplastic particles and potential implications for human health.
xx Boucher, J. and Friot, D., 2017. Primary microplastics in the oceans: a global evaluation of sources (Vol. 10). Gland, Switzerland: Iucn. Available here.
xxi Pirc, U., Vidmar, M., Mozer, A. and Kržan, A., 2016. Emissions of microplastic fibers from microfiber fleece during domestic washing. Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 23, pp.22206-22211.
xxii European Environment Agency (2023). Microplastics from textile: Towards a circular economy for textiles in Europe. Available here.
xxiii Forum for the Future, Tackling microfibres at source. Available here.
xxiv OECD (2021), Policies to Reduce Microplastics Pollution in Water: Focus on Textiles and Tyres, OECD Publishing, Paris. Available here.
xxv Fauna & Flora (2018). Marine pollution from microplastic fibres. Available here.
xxvi European Commission, Environment. ReSet the Trend. Available here.
xxvii United Nations Environment Programme. Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution. Available here.