The LIFE MERMAIDS project has found a natural polymer that fixes synthetic fibres in place, reducing by up to 80% the number of microplastics released when washing clothes.
According to research conducted by the Italian National Research Council (CNR) and the LEITAT technological centre in Spain, a typical 5 kilogramme load of polyester clothing can release millions of microfibres.
Building on these results, the Barcelona-based firm POLYSISTEC is now formulating innovative fabric treatments to keep those plastics safe. Synthetic textile manufacturers like the Radici Group, and fashion brands including G-Star have already taken an interest in the product.
As part of the LIFE MERMAIDS project, the CNR Institute for Polymers, Composites and Biomaterials in Pozzuoli has collaborated with its sister Institute for Macromolecular Studies in Biella, Italy, to test existing laundry products under laboratory conditions. Together they screened the microfibers released in each wash using a scanning electron microscope.
Tiny but toxic
Plastic particles smaller than 5 millimetres are particularly worrying for the environment because wastewater treatment plants cannot intercept them. When these microplastics break loose from synthetic fabrics, they spread through sewage pipes, rivers and oceans, eventually contaminating food chains.
At present there is no established solution for cleaning microplastics out of the environment, but there are options for catching them at the source.
Researchers in the LIFE MERMAIDS study found that the environmental impact of each load of laundry depends heavily on the type of clothes washed, the detergent and even on the settings of the washing machine.
In a recent scientific study, they showed that woven polyester, powdered detergents and higher temperatures all cause clothes to release particularly high concentrations of microplastics, whereas fabric softeners reduced them – current thinking suggests that it may reduce friction between textile fibres.
Shrimp shells and fruit peels
These results are helping companies like POLYSISTEC adapt recipes for textile additives to contain the release of microplastics even further.
Dr Maurizio Avella, project coordinator for LIFE MERMAIDS, says that new formulations can be mixed into laundry products, and that even better results can be achieved by combining eco-conscious detergents with finishing treatments applied to textiles before they enter the wash.
“Finishing treatments can protect plastic-based fabrics very well,” he said. “By testing and mixing innovative additives, the MERMAIDS project is helping to reduce the number of microfibers released when washing synthetic textiles.”
Many of these pre-wash treatments are based on synthetic and natural polymers. Researchers have derived some of the most promising candidates from silicone, and compounds found in fruit skins and crustacean shells.
To export their success from the laboratory to home washing machines will require further R&D. Dr Avella is optimistic. He says that that all the ingredients used in the chemical compounds are commercially available, and that initial tests show that the microplastic-catching coatings remain stable in the wash.
Source: EU LIFE