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Scientific study finds Merino wool could be solution to ocean microplastics problem

Tom Bottomley
27 March 2020

A new scientific study, titled "Microfibre Pollution and the Marine Biodegradation of Wool", by The Woolmark Company, has found that both untreated and machine washable Merino wool readily biodegrade in marine environments, while synthetics fibres do not.

Researchers compared the biodegradability of the two types of Merino wool in sea water to the biodegradability of viscose rayon, polyester, nylon and polypropylene.

All fabrics were washed repeatedly before testing to simulate a partial garment lifetime. The rate of biodegradation was then compared to that of a substance known to biodegrade readily, kraft paper pulp.

Scientists found untreated wool biodegraded at 20.3% the rate of the pulp and the machine-washable wool biodegraded more than three times as quickly, at a rate of 67.3% – the fastest of all fabrics. At the tail-end was nylon, biodegrading at a rate of just 0.8%, followed by polypropylene and polyester.

Stuart McCullough, managing director at The Woolmark Company, said: “Our research into wool and microplastics began back in 2016 when we investigated the current state of knowledge concerning microplastic pollution, focussing on microfibres from textiles.

“This latest scientific study is a significant addition to the body of research investigating the damage certain textiles cause to our environment. Wool has long been heralded the original eco fibre, but concerns had been raised about the machine-washable finish applied to wool and whether it added to the microplastic problem, so we wanted to clarify that issue.”

The ground-breaking new research from The Woolmark Company has indeed found that Merino wool does not contribute to the issue of microplastics in our oceans. In fact, machine washable wool actually biodegrades at a faster rate than untreated wool fabrics, and there was no evidence the treated wool’s polyamide resin coating added to microplastic pollution.

Previous estimates suggest as much as 20-35% of all primary source microplastics in the marine environment are from the use of synthetic clothing, and a single polyester fleece garment can produce more than 1,900 microfibres per wash.

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