The Unnatural ‘Natural’: Assessing the Transport and Chemical Pollution Risk of Natural Textile Fibres

Thomas stanton

Nationality British

Year of selection 2021

Institution Loughborough University

Country United Kingdom

Risk Health

Post-Doctoral Fellowship

2 years

Expected start date: Summer 2022

Plastic textile fibers, such as polyester and nylon, are one of the most common types of microplastic pollution in the textile industry and are known vectors of chemical pollution. Natural fibers, such as cotton and wool, are frequently perceived and marketed as a greener substitute for their plastic analogs. However, their "natural" label diverts the consumer's attention away from the extensive chemical modification they undergo for textile use, such as bleaching, dyeing, and adding antimicrobial properties. Additionally, natural fibers have also been found to persist in aquatic environments for decades to centuries.  Like plastic fibers, natural fibers can entangle in and block gastrointestinal tracts, potentially exposing organisms to bound chemicals for extended periods.

These chemical interactions have yet to be quantified, resulting in significant environmental, industrial, health, and societal knowledge gaps. Dr. Thomas Stanton at Loughborough University will conduct the first assessments of harmful chemical leaching associated with natural textile fiber production and the fibers’ interaction with common chemical pollutants in the environment, such as heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, and persistent organic pollutants. He will also assess the relative shedding of fibers from garments of different fiber types and construction and evaluate their movement through freshwater environments, focusing on rivers.

Dr. Stanton will use cutting-edge facilities at Loughborough University and the University of York on laboratory and environmental scales. He will address the relative mobility and chemical impacts of natural fibers compared to the microplastic fibers that have been the focus of fashion's environmental impacts in recent years. The research will provide an evidence base on which the textile industry, legislators, and individuals can make informed decisions to reduce the environmental impact of textile production and consumption.

By not adopting a plastic-centric perspective, this consideration of natural and microplastic fibers will be of considerable value to the textile industry, its legislators, and the public, enabling informed consideration of best practices and consumer behavior. Beyond textile fibers, this research will foster a cross-sector discussion on waste production and disposal for other everyday plastic products and their non-plastic alternatives.

May 2022

Watch Dr. Thomas Stanton pitch his project in 3 minutes

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