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NEW RESEARCH: Pre-Consumer Microfiber Emissions from Clothing Enter Oceans At Alarming Rate

New study by The Nature Conservancy and Bain & Company provides the first look into the scope of microplastics emissions from textile manufacturing

Fog off the coast of California.
The California Coast Fog off the coast of California. © David Hills Photography

For every 500 shirts manufactured, one t-shirt’s worth of microfibers pollute oceans, raising stakes around recommendations to end emissions

Scientists with The Nature Conservancy in California and Bain & Company published a study on World Oceans Day examining a significant source of microplastic emissions from clothing that has flown under the radar, contributing to the amount of pollutants threatening ocean ecosystems and public health.

The report, Toward Eliminating Pre-consumer Emissions of Microplastics from the Textile Industry, finds that an estimated 0.12 million metric tons (MT) of synthetic microfibers are released into the environment annually at the pre-consumer stage. This means that for every 500 shirts manufactured, one is lost as microfiber pollution.

This new study examines the sources of microfibers emissions from textile manufacturing and materials processing, such as fragmentation of yarn and fabric in the industry and ineffective filtration of fibers that leak into waterways. While attention on microfibers emissions has been largely focused on the shedding, washing and disposal of synthetic textiles by consumers, this report shows that pre-consumer emissions have now reached the same order of magnitude as the consumer use stage.

“This report helps us begin to understand microfiber emissions in pre-consumer textile manufacturing and how we can advance ocean health. Previously most of the focus and research on microfiber emission has been on the consumer use and loss during laundering, but now we are starting to see that the magnitude of the problem is similar at the pre-consumer stage,” said Tom Dempsey, oceans programs director at The Nature Conservancy in California. “The good news is that with a few powerful steps—ranging from development of fiber control technology and establishing best practices for suppliers to the continued work in materials innovation—collectively we can make a massive impact in reducing pre-consumer microplastic emissions into the ocean.”

Left unaddressed, these pre-consumer emissions are projected to increase by 54% by 2030, the same year that U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration aims to have protected 30% of U.S. lands and waters in the face of rising environmental challenges. The report outlines consumer and supplier recommendations, along with regulatory steps, that could address 90% of pre-consumer emissions. 

“Since this research is so new, a lot of suppliers are not aware of the scope of the problem,” said Sam Israelit, a partner in Bain & Company’s Supply Chain Management practice and the firm’s Chief Sustainability Officer. “And now we have data to show what we’ve noticed in broader conversations on protecting the planet, which is that there is significant consumer appetite for sustainable clothing. It’s another indicator that the market is there for companies who want to cut microplastics emissions.”

“It is great to see the release of this report at a time when the needle is shifting from impact at the consumer level to impact at the manufacturing level,” said Sophie Mather, executive director at the The Microfibre Consortium, a global nonprofit developing practical solutions to minimize microfiber fragmentation and release through its member base at the brand, retail, supplier, research, and policy level. “The pre-consumer recommendations set out in the report are much needed as the urgency to work more collaboratively on this issue escalates. In response, The Microfibre Consortium is currently supporting the development of supplier based guidance, encouraged that an aligned approach within manufacturing could scale impact far greater than steps taken at the consumer level. ”

Previous research has shown that microplastics from clothing end up in our water, soil and air. In fact, humans ingest one credit card worth of plastic each week on average.

This new research shows growing consumer consciousness around reducing microplastic emissions. The report found that of the 43% of those surveyed who were aware of the microplastics issue, half of them learned about it within the past year, and a third of them said that the problem needs to be “addressed urgently.”

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries and territories: 38 by direct conservation impact and 34 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.