As global concern grows about pollution of our oceans and effects on marine life and seafood, AgResearch is studying how different materials break down in the water to help keep consumers informed.
Studies indicate that microfibres (up to 5mm in size) are entering the oceans in large quantities – particularly from clothing and other materials in washing machines, where the tiny fibres can come loose and travel with the water into the drain, and ultimately to ocean outfalls.
More evidence is also required for microfibres from interior textiles like carpets, bedding and other products that are cleaned less often.
In the ocean, smaller microfibres can be ingested by the marine life and can end up in our seafood, potentially creating health issues as volumes increase.
AgResearch senior scientist Steve Ranford says the limited data available suggests wool – being a natural protein fibre – breaks down at a far greater rate in sea water, and therefore presents far less risk to the marine environment than synthetic fibres like polyester and nylon.
“To test that, we will be working with another Crown Research Institute, Scion, in an experiment that tests how samples from both woollen clothing and carpets biodegrade in controlled salt water conditions, compared to samples from the synthetic alternatives,” Steve says.
“This initial study will take place over a 90-day period, and from that our scientists will analyse the results and document what is left of the samples, and will be able to provide some information about how these materials break down and at what rate.
“From there our research will consider other factors relating to the different materials and how they break down.
“The aim is provide the public with objective information as they make choices about what they buy, as well as inform manufacturers and retailers of the performance of goods like clothing and carpet.
“There is a growing movement around the world by industry and governments towards more transparency about products and their potential impacts on the environment, and having good quality research is important for this discussion.”