New study questions environmental credentials of natural fibres

British researchers have found a much higher percentage of ‘natural’ fibres than microplastic fibres in freshwater and atmospheric samples in the UK, raising the question of whether enough is known about the environmental impact of this popular plastic alternative.

Experts from the University of Nottingham collected over 223 samples from 10 sites in and around Nottingham over a 12-month period and found that ‘natural’ textile fibres represented over 93 per cent of the textile fibre population measured. Microplastic textile fires, such as polyester and nylon, were absent from nearly 83 per cent of samples, unlike ‘natural’ textile fibres which were absent from just 9.7 per cent of samples.

“As our research shows, there is a high percentage of natural fibres in our water – and we don’t really understand what impact this might have on the environment,” said Tom Stanton, lead researcher on the study.

“What do we really know about the alternatives we are using in our efforts to curb plastic pollution? Much more needs to be done, before we can confidently say which of the alternatives available to us are the best for our planet.”

According to a university press release on the study, microplastic pollution has garnered a great deal of scientific, political and media attention in recent years, leading to both widespread concern and considerable effort to minimise the amount of plastic used in our day-to-day lives. For some, this has included an increased in the use of ‘natural fibres’ such as cotton and wool.

While the potential role of natural textile fibres as environmental pollutants has been speculated on, there has been a general consensus that their environmental threat is far less than that of plastic because they can biodegrade.

However, as Stanton points out, ‘natural’ textile fibres are still the product of multiple, potentially hazardous processes, making them inherently ‘unnatural’.

“The production of cotton is incredibly water intensive, and the methods used to process natural fibres often introduce a myriad of harmful chemicals into waters used for bathing and drinking,” Stanton said. “Moreover, the processing of natural fibres is often carried out in dangerous, exploitative working conditions.”

The University of Nottingham is working on several research projects that address the UN Sustainable Development Goal on clean water and sanitation (SDG 6).

Image credit: Anastasia Zhenina via Pexels

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