Sophie Page, Research and Campaigns Officer at the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, tells TRAID about its latest End Plastic Soup campaign to understand the impacts of microplastics fibres on the environment, and what we can do about it.

At its 2017 Annual Meeting, the Women’s Institute (WI) members passed a resolution with a 98.9% majority calling on Government and industry to research and develop solutions to limit the release of microplastic fibres, which are shed from synthetic clothing when laundered.

A major source of microplastic pollution is from microplastic fibres, particles smaller than 5mm that are shed from synthetic clothing when laundered. They are classed as the third largest primary source of microplastic pollution, after vehicle tyre dust and plastic pellet spills.

Due to their size, they are too small to be caught by washing machine filters and end up in the sewage system where they either remain in sewage sludge or are released into the marine environment.

On 30th October the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) launched a new report about microplastic fibres, In a Spin: How Laundry is Contributing to Plastic Pollution.

The report analysed responses from 1,500 people to build understanding about the potential scale of microplastic fibre release, how people wash, purchase and dispose of their clothes, and sets out recommendations for future action.

The findings highlight signs of positive consumer action taking place. For example, 90% of disposed clothing was ‘mostly’ donated to charity shops, and 62% of respondents reported making lifestyle changes, such as washing at a lower temperature, as a result of the NFWI’s campaign. This is encouraging and has a positive impact, not only in the reduction of fibre release, but also in reducing individual carbon and water footprint.

However, the report highlights that nearly half of respondents’ most washed items contained more than 30% synthetic fibres and households are doing 2.5 loads of washing per week – the equivalent to 68 million loads of washing nationally. This indicates that at least 9.4 trillion microplastic fibres could be released per week in the UK.

The report also links to the NFWI’s Fast Fashion and Climate Change campaigns. The NFWI is concerned with the fashion industry’s linear model, one where clothing is made, used and then disposed of. Our report found that nearly 90% of respondents purchase up to 40 items of clothing each year and almost half a million households send most of their unwanted clothing to landfill.

Microplastic fibres are hard to reduce as wearing and washing clothing is integral to our day-to-day lives. There is no one simple solution. We are calling for more research to understand the long-term impact microplastic fibres have on the environment and to quantify the issue through measurement and to better understand shedding rates from different fibres.

We are calling for people to buy more from second-hand sources and think of creative ways to upcycle, re-use and recycle their unused clothes to extract the maximum value from them and to ensure they are kept in circulation rather than sent to landfill.

Which is why we are asking WI members to use their crafting skills to hold awareness events and teach their communities about what to do with damaged or unwanted clothing, reviving the ‘Make Do and Mend’ approach to reduce the volume of disposed clothing and ensure clothing is valued.

In regard to microplastic fibres, the NFWI is not calling for a ban on synthetic clothing, nor a complete switch to natural fibres, as these carry their own environmental impacts. We are asking consumers to make small washing lifestyle changes such as washing at a lower temperature, reducing the amount of washes they do and ensuring their washing loads are running at capacity. Download our checklist here.

Ultimately, the responsibility cannot be placed solely on the consumer, for substantial change to occur it is necessary for industry, NGOs, academia and government to come together to seek solutions to the issue and for retailers to recognise the role their businesses play in polluting the environment.

To read the full report and recommendations, please visit the WI’s website: thewi.org.uk/endplasticsoup

The National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) has over 220,000 members across England, Wales, and the Islands. The NFWI is the largest voluntary women’s membership organisation in the UK and is an educational, non-party political organisation established to provide women with opportunities for learning and to give women a voice in their communities and our wider society. NFWI campaigns are underpinned by an entirely member-led resolutions process that places members at its heart and ensures WI campaigns respond to issues which members are passionate about.