What is the issue with microfibres?
Microfibres pose a problem to humans and the environment for three key reasons:
- Wide distribution in the environment - Microfibres have been found in virtually every type of habitat on the planet due to their ubiquity, small size and low density, all of which facilitate their transmission.
- Lack of biodegradability: Synthetic microfibres biodegrade slowly under natural conditions, if at all. This leads to their accumulation in the environment.
- Impact on the environment and human health: Microfibre exposure has been linked to several negative outcomes in aquatic species, including endocrine disruption, toxicity, gut blockages, reduced reproduction and death. However, research in this area is not extensive and our understanding of the associated environmental and health impacts of microfibres would benefit from further knowledge.
What’s the scale of the problem?
An estimated 0.48-4.28 million metric tonnes (MMT) of synthetic and natural microfibres could enter the environment every year (internal estimate, refer to report for estimation details). The amount of synthetic microfibres accumulated in the environment so far is thought to exceed 5.6 million metric tonnes (MMT)1. Existing studies have largely focused on microfibre shedding from synthetic textiles during washing, so there are significant knowledge gaps that would benefit from further research.
Despite the environmental and health concerns associated with microfibre pollution, microfibre release is still largely unregulated (OECD, 2021). Moreover, the environmental presence of microfibres is expected to increase as global textile consumption increases; annual global fibre production of textiles is estimated to increase by about 33% to 146 MMT by 2030 (from 109 MMT in 2020; the Textile Exchange 2020).
The report therefore has two objectives:
1. To synthesise existing knowledge about the sources and implications of microfibre pollution, and
2. To summarize possible areas of action for policymakers, companies and investors to reduce microfibre pollution.