Microplastics release: from research to joint actions for global solutions

Takeaways from "Unintentionally released microplastics from textiles during washing" webinar on 28 January 2021. 

“The world uses more resources than our planet can sustain, but there is no planet B.” With this statement, Mrs Ines dos Santos Costa, Portuguese Secretary of State for the Environment and keynote speaker of APPLiA’s webinar, opened her speech on the impacts stemming from the interlocks between the fashion industry and the release of plastics. “The consumption of clothing and textiles in the EU is responsible for a big environmental pressure. This calls for a systemic, interconnected and international approach aiming at a wide-scale implementation of circular business models inside and outside the EU'' Mrs Costa stated, while stressing the importance of re-considering our daily consumption habits as citizens. 

How can the home appliance sector contribute to tackle this challenge? Giulia Zilla, APPLiA’s Energy and Environment Policy Manager, was the first panelist to set the scene for the discussion. “It is throughout the entire lifecycle of textiles that release of microplastics happens” she explained “and as a sector manufacturing home appliances, we focused on the washing phase, that is when we play a role.” Giulia Zilla mentioned the commitment of the industry to contribute and recalled that the support of all stakeholders is needed, to find the most cost-efficient solution. On this topic, APPLiA commissioned the Research Institute of Sweden (RISE) to carry out a literature review on the microplastic emissions from textile during laundry allowing to critically collect and compare current published data and ultimately identify relevant findings. 

Philippe-Marie Lacroix, from the French Ministry for the Ecological Transition, started by citing the new French law requiring washing machines to have a microplastics filter as from 2025. Referring to it, he raised some questions addressing the lack of a standard measurement method for microfibers, the need to handle the costs related to this technology and the burden put on consumers for its maintenance.

Speaking on behalf of the textile industry, Mauro Scalia, Director of Sustainable Businesses at EURATEX, the European Apparel and Textile Confederation, explained that they brought together 20 research organisations to define an harmonised test method to measure the release of microplastics from textiles. Mr Scalia announced that the method was handed over to CEN, the European Committee for Standardisation, that will then be converted into an official standard. “We still need a large amount of data to frame the issue and assess the risks and that comes only from research” he concluded.

In recent times, that of microplastics pollution has become one of the central topics in the EU scenario. But when do microplastics emissions reach their full potential? “It is key to remember that microplastics come from different sources, among which textiles, tyre and pellets. Also, pollution comes not only in the use-phase but also in the production and end-of-life phases. Synthetic fibers, shedding the greatest amount, account for about 60% of the total global fiber production and this percentage is estimated to increase up to 80% in the next ten years,” stated Valeria Botta, Programme Manager at ECOS, the European Environmental Citizens Organisation. “Both upstream and downstream solutions are required” she added “such as minimum ecodesign requirements for textiles, mandatory pre-industrial washing and a broader approach to consider the whole value chain, specifically production and consumption stages.” Valeria Botta concluded.

Turning the attention to washing machine filters, Viktor Sundberg, Head of Office of the EU Technical Market Access at Electrolux, showed some pictures of machine filters in real-life conditions. Here, consumers would be asked to play a key role to make sure that the maintenance is done correctly, the caught microfibers are not rinsed under running water and that bypassing measures are not put in place to remove the filter. “Filters need maintenance and this is what the consumer would be confronted with. How can we ensure the consumer is doing it in the right way?” asked Mr Sundberg, calling for increased assessments on the consequences of filters’ implementation on washing machines, in real-life scenarios.

Consensus was reached by all panelists on the need to take coordinated action to support the achievement of substantial results. To conclude, in the words of Mrs Ines dos Santos Costa, “We need to think about the whole benefit of acting now and reducing our consumption of raw materials and energy. For people to improve their performance as citizens and for policymakers to ensure an increased sustainability and circularity, is the key priority of this century.” 

With a shared plee to work together, Paolo Falcioni, APPLiA’s Director General, closed the webinar whose recording is available at this link.