How many microfibers do you think you’ve consumed today?

If you have eaten any seafood or taken a deep breath, odds are you have taken in a fair few of these super small synthetic fibers that are shed from materials like polyester, acrylic, and nylon.

Microfibers come off of clothing during manufacturing, during washing and drying, and during degradation whenever they are thrown away. These fibers are usually too small to see with the naked eye, but end up contaminating everything from the fish we eat to the air we breathe.

An estimated 2.2 million tons of microfibers enter the world’s oceans every year, contributing to about 35% of the microplastic buildup in these water bodies. In turn, almost 75% of the fish caught in our oceans contain microfiber pollutants.

Recent research has shown we are all eating and drinking microfibers virtually every day, and breathing in up to 68,000 plastic microfibers shed from clothing, carpets, curtains, and other textiles every year.

Surely none of us considers plastic microfibers part of a balanced daily diet. So what if our clothes were made of materials that didn’t shed these harmful pollutants?

Materic, an Early Charm portfolio company specializing in advanced materials, imagines a future in which our clothes are made of materials that are not only much smaller than microfibers, but that also cause no harm to the environment. To that end, the company is working to produce new yarns that are made of nanofibers that are biodegradable.

Nanofibers are 100 times smaller than human hairs, and due to their extremely high surface area, they biodegrade (naturally decompose) about ten times faster than conventional microfibers. Materic is aiming to develop nanofiber materials that are durable enough to survive wash cycles and regular wear, but also break down quickly whenever they shed their fibers or when an entire garment is thrown away.

Materic’s biodegradable nanofibers were conceptualized by James Dolgin, an application scientist who has been pursuing new research and funding to develop the technology. He sees these nanofiber yarns as ideal for producing garments that are typically significant contributors to microfiber pollution – including those that are designed to be disposable, such as hospital gowns, or high-use athletic and outdoor wear, such as jerseys and fleece.

“If we replace microfibers with nanofibers in certain manufactured garments, we could help reduce microfiber build up and shrink the textile industry’s burden on the environment,” Dolgin said.

Creating microfiber alternatives and reducing textile pollution are not just altruistic goals for Materic’s scientists, but a growing focus of many environmental agencies and governments. For example, legislators in states like California have actively pursued new laws aimed at controlling microfiber pollution, and France has enacted a law that will require all new washing machines to have microfiber filters by 2025.

There are plenty of other applications for biodegradable materials beyond clothing, too – think biodegradable product packaging and disposable food containers. Dolgin said Materic looks forward to working on the kinds of futuristic materials that will reduce humans’ negative impact on the planet.

I, for one, look forward to less worry that I’m eating pieces of a shirt along with my salmon dinner.

Author: Morgan Eichensehr
Bio: Morgan Eichensehr is a technical writer for Early Charm. She tells the stories behind the science being done at the venture studio’s portfolio companies.