Research underscores the environmental advantages of wool

The advantages of wool over synthetic alternatives

The accumulation of plastics in the oceans is a major global environmental concern. It is also stimulating a growing interest in products with strong environmental credentials.

Wool is already known to have multiple benefits as a fibre used for clothing, furnishings and other everyday products. AgResearch teamed up with Scion (funded by SSIF and Australian Wool Innovation) to help inform a global audience of consumers about the advantage wool has over synthetic alternatives when it comes to the marine environment. 

The breaking down of fibres in water

A known source of microplastics entering the sea and freshwater systems is through shedding from synthetic fabrics in the process of washing clothes and laundering other products. This is also generating concern about the microplastics being captured in global seafood products.

A substantial body of research has established how wool biodegrades on land, but far less was understood about its behaviour in the aquatic environment until recently. As the International Wool Textile Organisation publicised in March 2020, our scientists conducted a study to compare fabrics for how much they biodegraded in water. The fabrics were washed repeatedly before testing to simulate a partial garment lifetime.

The study found that both untreated and machine-washable wool readily broke down in the water, as did cellulose-based viscose rayon. In contrast, synthetic fibres that were tested – polyester, nylon and polypropylene – showed little or no biodegradation in an aquatic environment. The treatment that makes wool machine-washable, preventing felting by applying a thin film to the fibre surfaces, actually caused the wool to biodegrade more rapidly than untreated wool.

Work to further establish the environmental credentials of wool is continuing at AgResearch with further funding from Australian Wool Innovation.

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