Tiny fibers create unseen plastic pollution

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WHILE the polyester leisure suit was a 1970s mistake, polyester and other synthetic fibers like nylon are still around and are a major contributor to the microplastics load in the environment, according to a Penn State materials scientist, who suggests switching to biosynthetic fibers to solve this problem.

“These materials, during production, processing and after use, break down into and release microfibers that can now be found in everything and everyone,” said Melik Demirel, Lloyd and Dorothy Foehr Huck Endowed Chair in Biomimetic Materials.

Unlike natural fibers like wool, cotton and silk, current synthetic fibers are petroleum-based products and are mostly not biodegradable. While natural fibers can be recycled and biodegrade, mixed fibers that contain natural and synthetic fibers are difficult or costly to recycle.

Islands of floating plastic trash in the oceans are a visible problem, but the pollution produced by textiles is invisible and ubiquitous. In the oceans, these microscopic plastic pieces become incorporated into plants and animals.

Harvested fish carry these particles to market and, when people eat them, they consume microplastic particles as well.

Demirel suggested four possible approaches to solving this problem at the 2019 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.