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Synthetic microfiber emissions to land rival those to waterbodies and are growing.

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Synthetic microfibers are found virtually everywhere in the environment, but emission pathways and quantities are poorly understood. By connecting regionalized global datasets on apparel production, use, and washing with emission and retention rates during washing, wastewater treatment, and sludge management, we estimate that 5.6 Mt of synthetic microfibers were emitted from apparel washing between 1950 and 2016. Half of this amount was emitted during the last decade, with a compound annual growth rate of 12.9%. Waterbodies received 2.9 Mt, while combined emissions to terrestrial environments (1.9 Mt) and landfill (0.6 Mt) were almost as large and are growing. Annual emissions to terrestrial environments (141.9 kt yr-1) and landfill (34.6 kt yr-1) combined are now exceeding those to waterbodies (167.2 kt yr-1). Improving access to wastewater treatment is expected to further shift synthetic microfiber emissions from waterbodies to terrestrial environments. Preventing emissions at the source would therefore be a more effective mitigation measure.

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