European oceans are contaminated by marine litter, especially plastics. Currently, it is estimated that global plastic production is increasing by 10% per year. Microplastics are particularly worrying, because wastewater treatment plants do not take them into account in their management processes and they are deposited in waterways and sewage sludge. Microplastic particles from synthetic clothing enter laundry wastewater and have been encountered in runoff and sewage waters, and in marine ecosystems in sediments. On average, more than 1 900 fibres of microplastics can be released by a synthetic garment during one wash. The main mechanisms responsible for the degradation of plastics in the marine environment are light-induced degradation and biodegradation. These processes are retarded in seawater due to lower temperatures and oxygen concentrations, and the presence of salt. Microplastics concentrate persistent organic pollutants via partitioning and they can be ingested by marine biota, thereby entering food webs.
The main objective of the LIFE - MERMAIDS project was to contribute to the mitigation of the environmental impacts of microplastics in laundry wastewater on European marine ecosystems. The aim was to demonstrate and implement innovative technologies, such as additives for detergents and textile finishing treatments, to prevent microplastic removal from synthetic clothing during laundry processes. The project also aimed to produce good practice guidelines for plastic fibre manufacturers, the textile industry, detergent manufacturers, and households. To consolidate the new knowledge of microplastic fibre-retaining technologies the project aimed to develop policy recommendations, to help achieve ?good environmental status? by 2020 under the European Marine Strategy Framework Directive (2008/56/EC).
The LIFE - MERMAIDS project demonstrated the feasibility of reducing amounts of microplastics entering the marine environment from laundry wastewater, by proposing mitigation solutions at fabric and laundry levels. Reductions in microplastic release in the range of 10%-70% were shown to be possible (though high variability was noted), when specific detergents and textile additives were used in low temperature / low cycle laundries.
The project team carried out more than 500 laboratory tests under simulated and controlled laundry conditions. These quantified microfibre (filament-shaped microplastic) release depending on the type of synthetic fibre washed, textile parameters (e.g. fibre length, yarn characteristics) and laundry settings (e.g. temperature, water ratio, water hardness, type of detergents, domestic vs. industrial).
Released microfibres were characterised and quantified with analytical methods, optical methods using a scanning electron microscope, and a specific counting technique developed during the project. Results were also validated in real-world tests carried out in domestic washing machines and in local industrial laundries.
The main project outcomes included three textile finishing processes and six polymeric additives for detergents. These worked by creating a thin coating on fabrics to reduce microfibre loss. A silicon emulsion textile auxiliary product reduced microfibre loss by around 30%. The project then developed innovative new finishing products using natural materials, including pectin and chitosan, that showed promising results. The project?s evaluation of environmental benefits confirmed a reduction in microplastic release of about 23% for a domestic laundry and 7% for an industrial laundry.
Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) were conducted for the washing cycle and the finishing treatments, in terms of microfibre release. However, it was found that current LCA methodologies do not adequately take into account the possible environmental impacts related to microplastic release.
As a result of the project?s comprehensive communications campaign, the general public, scientific community, the fashion industry, textile and laundry detergent sectors, and policy-makers are now much better informed about the problems of microplastic release from laundry processes. This increased could foster further mitigation actions (already seen for some companies since the project ended), with potential green job creation.
The project conducted an extensive review of the policy framework relating to microplastics in laundry wastewater, identifying several gaps and providing recommendation for updating regulations (e.g. BREF TXT and Ecolabels for laundry detergents and textiles). Recommendations were made in many policy areas, including the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (2008/56/EC), Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC), Urban Waste Water Directive (91/271/EEC), Ecodesign Directive (2009/125/EC), and United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The project pioneered innovative solutions for developing new environmentally-friendly laundry and textile products. It made important policy recommendations, and has pointed to where future research is necessary to provide definitive solutions for the mitigation of microplastics release from laundries into the marine environment. Decreasing microplastics in laundry wastewater can improve the environmental quality of the marine environment, and make it less likely you will find microfibres in your seafood.
Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Communication Plan (see "Read more" section).