TextileMission Conference in Brussels

Microplastics in Textiles: Challenges for Politics, Industry and Research

In the effort to effectively reduce the release of textile-based microplastics it's important to identify and exploit potential savings and optimisation at all stages of the product life cycle. Achieving this objective requires further interdisciplinary and international research. These are key findings of the conference "Microplastics in Textiles: Addressing the Challenges for Politics, Industry and Research“ held on December 10, 2019 in Brussels. The event was organised by the partners of the joint project TextileMission in cooperation with FESI, Federation of the European Sporting Goods Industry. Sponsor was the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The project partners presented first results of their research activities and discussed research policy priorities with more than 60 participants and representatives from EU Commission and BMBF.

Preview: Speakers and Topics

    Heike Vesper (WWF Germany): Microplastics – challenges and requirements for sustainable solutions
•    Prof. Dipl.- Des. Ellen Bendt (Hochschule Niederrhein – UAS): Interim results from textile research
•    Jérome Pero (FESI, Federation of the European Sporting Goods Industry): Microplastics-related initiatives of the sporting goods industry
    Prof. Dr. Stefan Stolte (Technical University Dresden): Retention of textile-based microplastics in wastewater treatment plants
•    Anna Athanasopoulou (EU Commission, DG GROW): EU policy agenda on plastics and microplastics
•    Wilfried Kraus (German Federal Ministry of Education and Research BMBF): Research policy agenda on plastic waste for the German EU Council’s Presidency
•    Panel discussion on research policy priorities and next steps

Microplastics: Challenges and requirements for solutions

Heike Vesper, Director Marine Program at WWF Germany, one of the project partners, in her lecture explained the challenges and requirements for sustainable solutions on textile-based microplastics from an NGOs perspective: "Studies have shown that 20 to 35 percent of the microplastics found in the oceans worldwide originate from garments made of synthetic fibres. Polyester has by far the largest share of it. The fibre fragments can cause inflammations and entanglements in the digestive tract of marine organisms. They influence natural behaviour, reduce fertility and can lead to the death of marine animals“.

After stressing the need to act, Mrs. Vesper gave advices on how to find a solution and WWF‘s expectations to industry and politics: "From a sustainability perspective, it is important to extent the research and action framework as far as possible. It is not just a question of particle release generated by the household washing of synthetic textiles. There are already considerable emissions at the textile production stage. Another important source of microparticles is the abrasion that occurs during wearing, and finally fibres are also released during the transport and when textiles end up in landfills. Avoidance must start at the very beginning and go on throughout the cycle."

The presentation of Heike Vesper you can find here.

A multidisciplinary approach with a broad perspective is pursued by the TextileMission project funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). As project partners, nine organisations from the sectors research, sporting goods, household appliance, detergents and environmental protection agencies contribute with their respective know-how (further background information on the project you can finde here). The results so far actually indicate that there will not be a single solution to the microplastic challenge, as will be described below.

Definitions and technical terms

How is the definition of microplastics? So far, the TextileMission project partners have based their work on a definition referring to fibres with different diameters and a fibre length < 5 mm as microplastics. Prof. Ellen Bendt, professor at the Research Institute for Textiles and Clothing at Hochschule Niederrhein - University of Applied Sciences, pointed out that currently several alternative definitions are discussed (e.g. one provided by ECHA, European Chemicals Agency) that extend the term microplastics to objects whose dimensions are in the nanometer range and to natural polymers being treated with additives.

„New definitions raise new scientific questions. What we, as researchers, need most of all for the comparability of our results are unified definitions“, Mrs. Bendt said, especially directed to those participants involved in standardization processes. The textile researcher also addressed the confusion caused by the widespread use of the term ‚microfibre‘ related to textile-based microplastics. „Microfibres are very fine fibre types with a diameter mostly from 3µm to 10µm, regardless of the use. Due to their properties they are particularly suitable for high-performance textiles. We should be aware that the frequent confusion of the terms could damage the image of high performance textiles.“

What are the main factors of microplastic emissions from textiles? What kind of textile technology approaches can be used to develop low-emission textiles? Prof. Bendt also provided answers to these questions. One result of the washing and drying tests conducted at Hochschule Niederrhein as part of the TextileMission project catches the eye: during the first washing cycles of a new garment by far the most microparticles are released. "This indicates that in ready-made garments there are still loose fibre fragments originating from production that are only discharged during household washing," Ellen Bendt said. A solution that all TextileMission partners consider worth testing could be a processing step (e.g. pre-washing or pre-drying) directly connected to the production process in the production countries. Pre-cleaning by dry processes would have several advantages: The haptics and volume of the new garments, important for sales, should be less affected than in the case oflaundry.

Advice for consumers: Always use full washing machine loads

If practicable, pre-cleaning would take effect at the beginning of the product life cycle. Consumers, on the other hand, wonder what kind of contribution would be appropriate during the use phase. „The lowest discharge of fibres into the aqueous environment occurs with a full washing machine load and subsequent drying in the dryer," Ellen Bendt explained.

Product development: Solutions from Research and Industry

Hochschule Niederrhein is not only researching into the causes of microplastic loss, but also into the development of sports and outdoor textiles with a lower microplastic emission by design. Ellen Bendt explained two approaches at different stages of the textile production chain. "Already during the knitting process in the production phase there is a high generation of microplastic load. Initial tests have shown that even changing few machine parameters can lead to a significant reduction in particle emissions." Later, when the raw material is joined to fleece jackets and pullovers by the manufacturers, there are also promising leverage points. "Conventional seams of apparel increase the emission potential. Alternative joining techniques such as ultrasonic welding, already tested, can lead to a reduction", Mrs. Bendt added. It remains to be proven, however, whether garments produced in this way also have the same performance properties as standard products on the market. In the further course of TextileMission, the textile researchers, together with the participating industrial partners such as VAUDE, will also test biodegradable cellulosic fibre materials and work on the implementation of the solution approaches in the textile supply chain.

The presentation of Prof. Ellen Bendt you can find here.

Under development: A Quick test for the determination of emission potencials

TextileMission has (up to now) a primarily German dimension. At an international level, the sporting goods industry e.g. cooperates in various initiatives via the Federation of the European Sporting Goods Industry (FESI) and other players. „Regarding microplastics, Brands and Users will increasingly ask for developments into materials that are more durable and shed less”, Jérôme Pero, Secretary General of FESI, pointed out. Mr. Pero presented the Cross Industry Agreement (CIA) as a European voluntary industry initiative to tackle microplastic release in a coordinated way. One focus is on the development of harmonized test methods such as an easy to operate test for the determination of emission potentials suitable to be used in the worldwide sourcing countries. “A draft core method is already worked out, even if there is still a need for discussion on specific parameters”, Jérôme Pero added. The quick test, once published, could help to manage microplastics along the entire supply chain.

The presentation of Jérôme Pero you can find here.

Biodegradability of fibre materials in sewage treatment plants: viscose performs well

What happens after fibre shed is led into the waterbodies? Finding answers to this question within the framework of TextileMission is the research focus of Prof. Dr. Stefan Stolte, Director of the Institute of Water Chemistry, TU Dresden. He presented about the effort to generate and characterize PET fibres which are separated into different size fractions. With these size fractions systematic investigations on the size dependent retention in lab-scale waste water treatment plants have been started: „Our experiments indicate that up to 97 percent of textile-based microplastics could be retained by wastewater treatment plants”, Mr. Stolte said. However, so far only the size fraction 500 to 1500 µm was investigated. If this result can be confirmed for smaller particles needs still to be investigated. The sorption to the sewage, however, might only change the entry path of microplastics into the soil since around 40% of sewage is applied to agricultural fields as fertilizer in EU. Technically, it is generally possible to treat water in a way that it is free of microparticles. However, this comes with an enormous effort and costs. “Instead of maximising the effort to get particles out of the water cycle, measures should be taken to reduce the emission at the first place” Stefan Stolte said.

As mentioned above, the TextileMission partners also plan to carry out experiments with biodegradable yarns as possibly sustainable alternatives. The possible extent of biodegradation in wastewater treatment plants is also tested at TU Dresden. The scientists use the OxiTop® test system which determines the degree of degradation of different materials by measuring the oxygen consumption: "Within our test period of 58 days, pure polyester was, as expected, not degraded at all, whereas cellulose fibres such as viscose can be considered as completely degraded. It was found that dyestuffs, which in this case accounted for about 0.2 - 0.4 weight percent of the viscose fiber, had no negative effect on the biodegradability of the material, but other applied textile finishes might affect the degradability". Stefan Stolte also warned of a prematurely optimistic generalization of the results: "These statements on biodegradability refer to the system waste water treatment plant - the degradation behaviour for example in sediments runs under completely different conditions". Water temperature and the concentration of microbes are just two examples.

The presentation of Prof. Stefan Stolte you can find here.

EU Policy Agenda on Microplastics

Anna Athanasopoulou, Head of Tourism, Emerging and Creative Industries at the European Commission, gave the audience an insight in the EU policy agenda on plastic and microplastics. „The new EU Commission under Ursula von der Leyen has a high level of ambition when it comes to sustainability“, the EU-representative stated at the beginning of her speech referring to the publication of a „Green Deal“ for the EU aiming to open path to an ecological leadership for Europe. To help drive this change, she underlined the future Commission’s role in presenting a New Circular Economy Action Plan, focusing on sustainable resource use, and putting forward a new industrial strategy for a future-ready economy. Regarding the challenges of  textile-based microplastics in particular, Mrs. Athanasopoulou highlighted the EU Plastics Strategy from 2018, the Commission’s role, acting as facilitator, for the collaboration between CEN and CIA signatories on test methods development and the revision of the eco-design regulation for washing machines and dryers as parts of a comprehensive political and regulatory framework. Regarding the challenges of microplastics intentionally added, she also mentioned the work related to the ECHA restriction dossier, which is currently under discussion.

Mrs. Athanasopoulou also explained what she perceives – also in the light of the input she got from the TextileMission partners – to be the most important future fields of action:

•    Importance of  clear definitions of what is considered as microplastic and a reliable database on the extend of its environmental impact
•    Textile research on solutions that are scalable at European and global level
•    Investment in Know-how and Technology
•    More pan-European collaboration

„Europe should move faster in all of these fields – not only in order to give a good example but also to create economic advantages for our common economic area“, Mrs. Athanasopoulou said. Last not least she brought into play the EU Comission’s plans for „Horizon Europe“, a multiannual 100 Billion Euro Research and Innovation program including amongst others „Healthy oceans, seas, coastal and inland waters“ as mission area. „The experiences from projects like TextileMission should find their way into the Horizon Europe planning process“, Mrs. Athanasopoulou concluded.

Research agenda for the German Council's Presidency

Wilfried Kraus, Deputy Director General European Cooperation in Education and Research at the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), gave a speech on the „Research policy agenda on ecology/ plastics for the German Council Presidency“. The BMBF has already focused on the plastics issue at a national level: TextileMission is part of the funding line „Plastics in the Environment“ comprising 20 projects that are being funded with a total of around 40 Million Euros until the year 2020. „After 2020 the BMBF will continue to work on this issue“, Mr Kraus announced.

For the German EU Council Presidency in the second half of 2020, the BMBF has come up with a special approach: „People usually connect Council’s Presidencies with high level conferences and meaningful political documents. This time we want to use plastic waste-related citizens‘ science campaigns as a starting point“, Mr Kraus explained. The idea is that EU-wide young people e.g. in school projects collect plastic waste and provide basic data on the extent of the environmental pollution. „That way every EU country can be part of a common campaign.“ Mr. Kraus said. He also called for more European cooperation in pursuing the goal of "zero plastic pollution at 2050" formulated by the 2019 G20 summit: „We have to join forces if we want to be a convincing partner in the world“.

Panel discussion on the Solution Finding Process

The event ended with a panel discussion in which the panelists, from the perspective of their respective organisations, defined priorities for the solution finding process. Heike Vesper (WWF) named a standard for sustainable textile design, a pretreatment of garments at production sites (e.g. pre-drying) and the optimization of water treatment as important leverage points. She also advised against the export of worn textiles into the developing countries: „These textiles are mostly not usable any more and end up in landfills.“ Prof. Ellen Bendt (Hochschule Niederrhein) pointed out once more, that only a bundle of solution approaches will lead to a effective reduction of textile-based microplastics. „There is a lot of potential for improvement in the production process. Additionally, recycling will emerge as one of the future topics of the textile industry“, she stated. Furthermore, the textile scientist favoured in general a higher appreciation of clothing as a valuable good as well as for more transparent supply chains.

Prof. Dr. Stefan Stolte (TU Dresden) stressed the technical possibilities of the expansion of wastewater treatment plants, but also mentioned the associated costs. „For me, the benign-by-design approach is still the most reasonable way to reduce textile microplastics“, he said. Marco Manfroni (Policy officer at EU Commission, DG GROW) highlighted the need for a comprehensive approach looking at all stages of the value chain. "From our point of view, it is also important that we come to a European solution that is also available for every member state," he added. Finally, Mr Manfroni considered a clear timeframe and clear objectives as desirable. Jérôme Pero (FESI) stepped on the brakes a bit, warning against the expectation of quick solutions. „As industry, we are currently in the process of coordinating many independent initiatives. Alignment is at the moment one of our most important tasks.“ In his view, suitable solutions should meet the following conditions: „We need efficient and cost-efficient solutions with a high scalability. Solutions that can be implemented in Europe and in the sourcing countries as well.“


From left to right: Moderator Nicole Espey (BSI), Heike Vesper (WWF), Jérome Pero (FESI), Prof. Ellen Bendt (Hochschule Niederrhein), Prof. Stefan Stolte (TU Dresden), Marco Manfroni (EU Commission). Photo: Octavian Carare