Microplastics are solid, insoluble synthetic polymers – i.e. plastics – that are smaller than five millimeters. They’re barely visible to the naked eye and have been found in lakes, rivers, and seas, even in sediments at the bottom of bodies of water, in the deep ocean, and in remote marine regions such as the Arctic. According to Greenpeace, there is hardly a body of water in the world that is not “plastically contaminated.”
The problem: The tiny plastic particles can no longer be removed from the environment. They are insoluble in water and difficult to degrade. Complete chemical degradation can take several hundred years. And, naturally, they get eaten by animals and other organisms and thus enter the human food chain.
The exact origins of the microplastic and how it got into the water have not yet been clarified. However, various international studies have come to the conclusion that textiles based on synthetic fibers play a major role. Fleece materials made of polyester in particular are affected. During the production and household washing of synthetic fiber textiles, microplastic particles are released that cannot be completely retained by sewage treatment plants.
“It’s assumed,” explains Nicole Espey of the Federal Association of the German Sporting Goods Industry (Bundesverband der Deutschen Sportartikel-Industrie, BSI), “that about 95 percent of the microfibers in this country are intercepted in sewage treatment plants, but about 5 percent gets through.” That percentage may be much higher in other countries, including the countries where production takes place.
To change this, the BSI is participating in the three-year multidisciplinary research project “TextileMission,” which started in September 2017 and has received approximately 1.7 million euros in funding from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The catalogue of measures is broad. Espey: “We need to find out how many microfibers are actually released during washing, we need to find alternatives for textile polyesters, and we need to find better retention techniques in waste water treatment plants and washing machines.”
Also involved in the research project alongside the BSI are Adidas, Polartec, Vaude, Henkel, Miele, the Hochschule Niederrhein, the TU Dresden, and the WWF Germany office. The European Outdoor Group (EOG) is also working with biov8tion and the University of Leeds to combat microfiber pollution as part of the ongoing Outdoor Industry Microfiber Consortium project.
Various sports brands are already reacting and presenting their first optimized products. In early November 2017, Vaude presented the first biodegradable fleece “Biopile” together with the Italian fabric manufacturer Pontetorto. A special construction of the fabric prevents the secretion of microfibers during washing and wearing. If fibers are released, the rough inside of the fabric isn’t made of polyester, but of 100% Tencel wood cellulose fiber from Lenzing, which is also biodegradable in seawater.
Tatonka is also presenting the first Biopile products from Pontetorto for the coming spring/summer 2019 season. Fewer seams are also intended to help reduce the amount of cut waste that can get into the water as garbage. Polartec, the largest fleece producer in the world and a partner in the research project, will also be presenting its first products soon. Alessandro Perseo of Polartec: “We intend to tackle problems at their roots, and to find solutions where there have been no problems so far. We are currently working on a new material that will greatly reduce fiber loss. The launch is planned for fall of 2018.”
Adidas has been working with the New York-based environmental lobbying organization Parley for the Oceans since 2015, and since then has been launching Adidas Parley shoe series with growing success, some of which are made from plastic waste from the sea. The products are accompanied by extensive marketing measures, such as the “Run for the Oceans,” which took place in Berlin in June as a cooperation between Adidas and Parley.
There, Adidas promised to donate one dollar for every kilometer run by a Runtastic user for marine conservation. Adidas is also making use of special collaborations with retailers like Keller Sports spur environmental engagement, inviting people to collect garbage and explaining how consumers can prevent the release of microplastics.
The first pragmatic product innovation on the subject of microplastics came from the Berlin start-up Guppy Friend. Consumers are meant to pack all textiles that could easily lose fibers into the Guppy Friend wash bag. On the one hand, the bag is meant to keep less fiber from detaching from the fabrics, but above all, the dense weave is intended to prevent them from getting into the waste water.
The problem here, however: The consumer is responsible for the bag and must carefully dispose of the microplastics in order to prevent them from ending up in the water again afterwards. New bills in the US are also aimed at ensuring that the consumer bears a share of the responsibility. Starting in 2020, in some states like California, products made of more than 50 percent polyester must indicate on their labels that the garment will shed ocean-polluting microfibers during household washes.