Small fibres from synthetic clothing could be more damaging to marine life than microbeads – a new study has found.

Several European governments have made moves to ban microbeads from cosmetics – including the UK and Sweden. But now experts fear that the sheer quantity of microplastic washed into rivers, lakes and seas when synthetic clothing such as polyester and nylon is thrown in the wash could be a far greater environmental threat than microbeads.

Each cycle of a washing machine releases an estimated 700,000 microscopic plastic fibres into the environment.

The new study – led by researchers from Griffith University in Australia – analysed the impact of both microbeads and microfibres on water fleas and small shellfish.

The researchers found that although both are toxic to the creatures, microfibres cause more harm. Both microbeads and microfibres stunt the growth of small crustacean (shellfish) and reduce their ability to reproduce, but microfibres do so to a far greater extent and they cause noticeable deformaties on the small sea creatures’ bodies and antennas.

The findings follow a recent report from Greenpeace which found evidence of textile-derived microfibre pollution as far away as the Antarctic.

Six months ago the European Commission published a much-anticipated plastic strategy in which it pledged to consider action to reduce the release of microfibres from textiles into the aquatic environment.

But the campaign group Plastic Soup Foundation criticised the Commission for supporting a group of European textile industry players who call for more analysis of the problem and for methods to test the impact of microfibres.

Plastic Soup Foundation say such an approach is putting off tackling the issue and that the extent of microfibre pollution is already well known, with the Commission itself even having funded research into the impact of microfibres.

Awareness of the microfibre problem first emerged back in 2004 when researchers from the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom set out to investigate the occurrence of microplastics in the marine environment. They found an increase in fibrous synthetic material over time that corresponded with the onset of synthetic fibre production in the 1970s.

But while the research community has long been aware of the problem, awareness among the public remains low. A new study from Hubbub – an environmental charity in the UK – shows that 44% of the public are completely unaware that microfibres are released into our waterways and end up in our food.

A paper published in 2011 found that microfibres made up 85% of human-made debris on shorelines around the world.

The European Commission recently tasked a group of researchers to compare the impact of potential options for tackling the microfibre problem. The group looked at options such as setting a law on maximum limits on microfibres in textiles, producing washing machines with inbuilt fibre capture, and better labelling that shows the fibre content of clothing products.