The German sporting goods industry association (BSI), the Adidas Group, Polartec and Vaude are taking part in a three-year research project funded by the German federal ministry of education and research, to try and reduce micro-particles shed when textiles made with synthetic fibers are washed.

Along with micro-particles from many other sources, those released during washing textile items made with synthetic fibers such as polyamide and polyester can end up in the environment and enter the food chain through rivers, lakes and seas. They are particularly durable and generally float between the surface and the sea floor, where marine animals may mistake them for food.

Micro-particles have become a topic of environmental research and action in several parts of the outdoor industry. They include the launch of the Outdoor Industry Microfiber Consortium announced in May by the European Outdoor Group (EOG), formed with its members and partners. The EOG had been working on this topic for two years, together with organizations such as the Scandinavian Outdoor Group (SOG), Peak Innovation and the Outdoor Industry Association in the U.S. The consortium is led by the EOG, the SOG and Peak Innovation, along with Leeds University and Biov8tion, a sustainable innovation company, as scientific partners.

The Textile Mission project, started at the beginning of September, is coordinated by BSI and funded with a budget of €1.7 million from the German government under a funding priority program called “Plastic in the environment – sources, reduction, possible solutions.”

One part of the project is to work on creating textiles and clothing using research and production processes that significantly lower the quantities of micro-particles release compared with currently available products. The researchers will verify the feasibility of using biodegradable fibers as an environmentally-friendly alternative.

The other part of the project is to try and optimize wastewater treatment technology to remove the largest possible amount of particles. This would also help to reduce micro-plastics from non-textile sources.

The sporting goods suppliers in the Textile Mission are to work together with the Hochschule Niederrhein (Faculty of Textile and Clothing Technology) and the TU Dresden (Faculty of Environmental Sciences). Other parties are Henkel, the German detergents company, and Miele, which makes washing machines, along with WWF Germany.

The research launched by the EOG working committee has a slightly different approach, as the first phase is to investigate the shedding rates and structures of fabrics frequently used in outdoor apparel – studying polymers, fibers and yarns, as well as fabric construction and garments. The consortium is led by Berghaus, Finisterre, Haglöfs, Helly Hansen, Mammut, Norrøna, Salewa and The North Face, and supported by Alpkit and Jack Wolfskin, as well as the fabric and yarn suppliers, Shinkong Synthetic Fibres Corporation and Little King. The objective of this phase is to have an open source database detailing the outcome of the research. Early findings were outlined at the OutDoor fair in Friedrichshafen in June, and more of the results will be outlined at Ispo in Munich in January.

Vaude is not taking part of the consortium, because it was waiting for approval of government funding for the Textile Mission at the time when the consortium was formed. However, the two parties have apparently planned to exchange on their respective findings.

Vaude says it has already started tackling the issue by working on the materials used in its garments. The target is that the materials shouldn't shed microfibers at all, or they should be biodegradable, without losing functionality. The company says it has some promising initial findings that are currently being tested.

Another important participant in the Textile Mission, Polartec, produces fleece and other technical textiles used in the sports and outdoor industry. Gary Smith, Polartec's chief executive, said in Friedrichshafen earlier this year that filtration standards on waste water would help to reduce the release of micro-particles from textile washing in the short term. But Smith added that the efforts on filtration in the short term should be accompanied with work on ways to reduce the source of textile shedding – without any impact on the resistance and comfort of the textiles using these fibers.

Some of the parties involved pointed out that micro-particles from shedding textiles appear to be far from the most important source of micro-particles in public waterways. Research by Norway's environmental agency more than two years ago found that it was only the fifth source of such micro-particles found in all waterways. It suggested that the volume of micro-fibers caused by textile washing represented less than 5 percent of the micro-particles in waterways that came from wear-and-tear of car tyres, and less than 20 percent of the volume caused by the painting and maintenance of ships and leisure boats.

It has been estimated that up to 12 million tons of plastic litter could be entering the ocean every year. A recent investigation by Orb Media in which scientists analyzed scores of tap water samples from more than a dozen countries found that 83 percent of the samples were contaminated with plastic fibers. As reported by The Guardian, the U.S. had the highest contamination rate at 94 percent, compared with 72 percent in Europe, which had the lowest rate. The average number of fibers found in each sample of 500 ml ranged from 4.8 in the U.S. to 1.9 in Europe.