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CSR News: Dealing with the Global Microplastics Problem

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According to new research from The Woolmark Company, it has been discovered that Merino wool does not contribute to the issue of microplastics in our oceans.
The groundbreaking scientific study – titled ‘Microfibre Pollution and the Marine Biodegradation of Wool’ – has come to a conclusion that both untreated and machine washable wool readily biodegrade in marine environments, while synthetic fibres do not. In fact, according to the study, the machine-washable wool actually biodegrades at a faster rate than untreated wool fabrics. Additionally, there was no evidence that the treated wool’s polyamide resin coating added to microplastic pollution.
Previously, it was estimated that as much as 20 per cent to 35 per cent of all primary source microplastics in the marine environment is from the use of synthetic clothing and a single polyester fleece garment can produce more than 1900 microfibres per wash.
In this latest study researchers compared the biodegradability of the two types of Merino wool in seawater to the biodegradability of viscose rayon, polyester, nylon and polypropylene. Residues were examined using scanning electron microscopy and energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy. All fabrics were washed repeatedly before testing to simulate a partial garment lifetime. The rate of biodegradation was then compared to that of a substance known to biodegrade readily, kraft paper pulp.
Additionally, in this study, the scientists have found that untreated wool biodegraded at 20.3 per cent the rate of the pulp. And the machine-washable wool biodegraded more than three times as quickly, at a rate of 67.3 per cent – the fastest of all fabrics. At the tail-end was Nylon, biodegrading at a rate of just 0.8 per cent, followed by polypropylene and polyester.
“Our research into wool and microplastics began back in 2016 when we investigated the current state of knowledge concerning microplastic pollution, focussing on microfibres from textiles. This initial body of research began the process of improving methodological development to account for microfibre release during the use phase in the Lifecycle Assessment of clothing,” said Stuart McCullough, Managing Director, The Woolmark Company.
He added, “This latest scientific study is a significant addition to the body of research investigating the damage certain textiles cause to our environment. Wool has long been heralded the original eco fibre, but concerns had been raised about the machine-washable finish applied to wool and whether it added to the microplastic problem, so we wanted to clarify that issue. During these ever-changing troubled times, it’s important to consider how well-intentioned consumers can make purchasing decisions that help look after the health of the environment. Choosing natural fibres, such as Merino wool is an important place to start.”