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Microfibers- Background, Concern and Solutions

From Current Affairs Notes for UPSC » Editorials & In-depths » This topic

While microplastics have been garnering world-wide attention for their adverse impacts on the marine environment, another invisible threat continues to remain invisible to the global community- microfibers.

This topic of “Microfibers- Background, Concern and Solutions” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.

What are microfiber?

  • Microfibers are microscopic pieces of fabric, usually less than 5 mm. These are released from all types of clothing- natural, semi-synthetic and synthetic.
  • These fibres are released during washing. These gets flushed down the drain and eventually reaches the beaches and oceans.
  • Several factors influence microfiber shedding from textile laundering:
    • Washing temperature
    • Drum speed
    • Water volume
    • Detergent type
    • Load capacity
    • Washing machine type
    • Textile design
    • Textile quality
    • Use of dryers (can release microfibers directly into the air), etc.
  • While microplastics have been garnering significant attention, their semi-synthetic and natural counterparts have emerged as equally worrisome pollutants.  

Why is it an issue?

  • The current wastewater treatment systems are unable to efficiently address this concerning pollutant. Hence, they find their way directly into the aquatic environment, especially through sludge applications and landfills.
  • Natural and semi-synthetic microfibers are also a source of concern because of their tendency to release dyes and other chemicals.
  • Upon entering the ecosystem, these invisible pollutants threaten the growth and reproductive capabilities of a range of organisms.
  • These microfibers can enter the food chain and pose a hazard to human health as well.
  • Considering India’s significant population, the use of washing machines by even a small percentage of the population contributes significantly to microfiber pollution.
  • Also, considering the burgeoning textile industry and the fast fashion culture have been pushing an unsustainable consumerist culture. This use-and-throw culture prioritizes quantity over quality, leading to cheaper textile designs, compromised fabric quality and surplus production.
  • The unsustainability of the sector is further aggravated by the rapid urbanization, increased purchasing power, growing GDP and brand penetration in the market.

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How can it be addressed?

  • As we diligently launder our clothes, we fail to realize the pollution resulting from this seemingly mundane task.
  • India’s rules, regarding textiles and plastic waste management, are yet to recognize the significance of microfiber pollution. It is high time that appropriate regulatory framework is put in place.
  • Addressing this issue requires sustainable solutions such as:
    • Curbing microfiber shedding from textiles
    • Use of front-load washing machine
    • Use of liquid detergents
    • Washing on full load at colder temperatures
    • Use of normal drum speeds
    • Use of tools like guppy friend bags and cora balls
    • Use of natural air drying for laundry
    • Investing in external washing machine filters and subsequent sustainable disposal of the microfibers, etc.
  • However, these solutions can only reduce the microfiber shedding levels. More comprehensive steps are required.
  • Other steps like proper labelling of textile products to raise awareness, introduction of novel CSR strategies, etc. can also help.
  • Recycling and thrifting need to be popularized among the Indian populace. This will reduce overexploitation of resources and limit mass production.
  • Some countries, like France, have already put in place rules mandating washing machine brands to have inbuilt filters and its associated sustainable disposal mechanisms by 2025.
  • Several multinational brands have started recycling trash textiles into different products.
  • Going forth, addressing this issue will help India achieve SDG targets including plastic pollution reduction, marine conservation and sustainable consumption.

Conclusion:

Microfibers are one of the many invisible pollutants that are harming the environment alongside the well-known pollutants like microplastics. The Indian rules are yet to recognize and reflect the dangers posed by the fibres. It is high time to adopt a multifaceted approach to addressing this invisible issue.

Practice Question for Mains:

Why are microfibers a cause for concern? How can it be addressed? (250 words)

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