Investigating microfibre pollution

  • Our clothes are contributing to hundreds of thousands of tonnes of microfibres being released into the environment. 
  • Not enough is currently known about the impact this is having. 
  • A Manchester team is investigating potential impacts, alongside the challenges and barriers to microfibre prevention. 
  • They’re aiming to propose economically viable solutions in partnership with relevant industries. 

The fashion industry is facing several growing social and environmental sustainability issues; from clothing textile waste to the prospect of widespread microfibre pollution (MSF). For the latter, we struggle to even define the problem. Whilst we know that huge amounts of microfibres are entering our ecosystems, we don’t yet know the impact this is having. 

There’s even an issue of public understanding: whilst many associate microfibres with plastics only, microfibers can also be released from natural fibres. These ‘natural fibres’ have usually been coated with another substance to enhance the look and feel of the fabric or add a specific function, such as dyes, softeners or even making them easier to dry. As such, there’s a difference between microfibre – the material that’s been designed – and microfibre, the potential pollutant. 

Consumer and industry questions at the heart of investigations 

Now, a Manchester team has set out to assess the damage that microfibres are doing to our world, and what might be done to tackle it. Led by Dr Claudia Henninger, an expert in sustainability in the fashion industry and Executive Board Member of the Sustainable Fashion Consumption Network and Arthur Garforth, Professor of Catalysis in Manchester’s Chemical Engineering department, with Libby Allen, the team are tackling several key questions. Amongst them, are: 

  • What are the current challenges and barriers to microfibre prevention? 
  • Could different approaches, like filters, play a role? 
  • Could we ‘design out’ waste like microfibres altogether? 
  • And where does responsibility lie for this pollution? With the consumer, policy makers, or with the industry? 

This is a problem that is all around us. If you use a tumble-dryer or a washing machine with a filter, you’ll see the ‘lint’ that is collected (the common name for the visible accumulation of textile fibres). Currently you’re advised to put this lint into your household waste – but there are several ways in which these fibres then get released into the environment. Could we instead use the lint as a resource? If not, how should it be disposed of? The team put these consumer questions at the heart of their investigations. 

Material characterisation and social definitions 

Manchester’s research focussed on characterising microfibres to track the differences in their size and determine how best to map their impact. The team – supported by fabric created within Department of Materials, and characterised within Chemical Engineering Department – ran a range of tests tracking the whole of the fabric cycle, through creation and pre-treatments, to washing approaches, and then examined the fabrics and MFP under microscopes to look at how much pollution was released with changing variables, what the size and shape of the microfibres were, and where in the process they might be occurring. This information is needed for informed and effective mitigation strategies to tackle microfibre pollution. 

Alongside, by undertaking qualitative research, they explored how microfibre pollution is defined from an industry perspective and what challenges or solutions are associated with it. Through a programme of in-depth expert interviews, they have found insights to drive the conversation with industry forwards. For example: the need for a clear-cut definition on MFP and a key distinction between what is considered as problem and challenge. 

Developing economically viable solutions 

By leading investigations into MFP, the team aims to propose economically viable solutions in partnership with relevant industries. They’re also investigating how different stakeholders could work together to take actions throughout the entire product lifecycle; plus improving communication practices which provide the consumer with the scientific facts and the practical solutions to take action. 


Dr Claudia E Henninger is a Reader in Fashion Marketing Management, and her research interest is in sustainability, the circular economy, and more specifically collaborative consumption, in the context of the fashion industry. Claudia is also an Executive Board Member of the Sustainable Fashion Consumption Network. 

Related papers: 
Sustainable Knowledge from Consumer Perspective Addressing Microfibre Pollution 
Textile Industry Insights Towards Impact of Regenerated Cellulosic and Synthetic Fibres on Microfibre Pollution 

To discuss this research or potential collaborations with Dr Henninger, email Claudia.Henninger@manchester.ac.uk 

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