How to Reduce Microplastics in Your Laundry

This is the simple question posed by Friends of the Earth: Do you eat your own clothes?

According to a study conducted by theed by Dr. Liam Morrison, of NUI Galway (2021), 90% of our protected waterways, 79 Special Conservation Areas (SPACs) in Ireland, show the presence of microplastics (MP), also widely referred to as microfibers or nanoplastics.

As thin as half a human hair and up to 5mm long in some cases, these tiny artificial particles and wisps have appeared everywhere from the gills of fish to the placenta and feces of newborn babies.

Spreading from the source and dancing in the tides, nanoplastics wreak havoc on the marine environment, fragmenting and breaking down into smaller pieces that do not biodegrade.

They then become even more agile and can be ingested by fish and other marine animals, bioaccumulating in the bodies of larger animals.

These invaders have been shown to be small enough to travel to all human organs. Australian scientists estimated in a 2020 research study that nearly 16 billion tonnes of small stuff already sits on the ocean floor, with 2.2 million tonnes added to that burden each year.

MP is physically and chemically toxic and attracts other bio-pollutants in what a leading Amsterdam-based environmental foundation tackling household plastic load has taken as its own brand – Plastic Soup.

In Ireland, our subtidal zones are ‘sinks’ holding this abundant pollutant. NUIG research suggests that the clear fiber content of the microplastic load in our vulnerable streams, shorelines and marshes appears to come from gray (waste) water sources.

The white goods industry in the UK and Europe is under pressure to introduce new MP filters into washing machines to prevent these contaminants from being lost to gray water.

Topping the list is the widely dispersed contents of washing machines. Clothing and home accessories made from or containing microplastics inevitably lose some of their makeup when used or worn, and when agitated and rinsed in a washing machine.

Dr Morrison explains: “Less than 25% of plastics are recycled globally, and this problem is very specific to clothing. 100 years ago we wore all natural fibers – wool, cotton, leather and so on. The introduction of plastics has brought huge benefits to society, but over the past century only 9% of plastic waste has been recycled, 79% of which ends up in soils, oceans, landfills and everywhere else.

“Unfortunately, plastics have become almost universally reviled, and Ireland remains the biggest producer of plastic waste in the EU, and the fourth worst in terms of recycling.”

The synthetic garments we love for their economy, feel and ease of care are often made from twisted filaments of petrochemicals, including nylon, polyamide, acrylic, rayon, spandex and polyester – polyester being considered the main offender. fighting MP.

Dr Liam Morrisson.
Dr Liam Morrison.

Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in a study funded by prestigious sportswear brand Patagonia, found that each time a synthetic fleece jacket was washed, it released 1.7 grams of PM. Older jackets shed almost twice as much fiber as new jackets.

Ocean Clean Wash, a multinational microfiber awareness campaign group, adds:Plastic particles washed away from products made with synthetic materials contribute up to 35% of the primary plastic that pollutes our oceans.

“Every time we do our laundry, an average of 9 million microfibers end up in sewage treatment plants that can’t filter them.”

The estimated 36 billion washes that are carried out each year in Europe have a real and widespread impact. So what can you do to reverse this toxic tide with new behaviors at home?

“The message is not easy to accept when you are faced with cheap clothes, and it’s not just fleeces that produce MP, it’s tights and even mixed fibers like T-shirts ( with a high cotton content),” says Dr. Morrison.

“The solution is to start at the source with the washing machine, removing the fibers from our waste water. This environmentally harmful discharge is where we have a chance to prevent this pollution from happening.

“I think the blame should ultimately shift to device makers, forcing them to introduce filter technology into new machines.”

Ten tips to fight PM from your laundry

PlanetCare can be installed on your washer in just ten minutes.  Starter kits including three filters from €60, Planetcare.org.
PlanetCare can be installed on your washer in just ten minutes. Starter kits including three filters from €60, Planetcare.org.

If your washing machine is at the end of its life (80% of its carbon footprint was in its manufacture; wait until the machine is really in working order before replacing it) beware of changes very close to environmental specifications.

The white goods industry in the UK and Europe is under pressure to introduce new MP filters into washing machines to prevent these contaminants from being lost to gray water. Waterless washing machines using pressurized carbon dioxide to clean our clothes are still only a pilot project.

Buy less synthetic fibers

Just go smugly to wool and cotton – well, it’s complicated. Some natural materials require a high chemical content in their production and finishing. Just be more aware of what you’re buying.

Become a label reader. If you’ve always been sensitive to second-hand clothes, it’s time to put your designer toes into the circular economy.

Fill your device

The shedding of all the fibers in your clothes is caused by the friction and turbulence of your machine, grinding materials against each other. By running the machine at full capacity, you reduce the movement of the load, and the stresses on the fabric.

Bin correctly

Anything you find in your tumble dryer filter or any future microfiber filter should go in the black bin, not recycle or even worse, be thrown down the drain because it’s full of synthetic particles.

Use liquid rather than powder

According to Ocean Clean Wash and Dr. Morrison agrees, powder has a more abrasive cleaning method, while liquid disperses and is gentler on weaves. Soften the wash water further by also using fabric softener.

Hand wash if possible

    The Guppyfriend toiletry bag.  Waste accumulates in the corners of the wash bag and can be easily removed and disposed of.  At the price of 30€ plus delivery.
The Guppyfriend toiletry bag. Waste accumulates in the corners of the wash bag and can be easily removed and disposed of. At the price of 30€ plus delivery.

Hand washing with liquid detergent and spot cleaning is a good option for a few key pieces of your weekly loads, again reducing stress and shedding of the garment or accessory by washing them less often if possible.

Reduce long hot washes

Obviously, the more intense and longer the washing, the more the microfibers will be loosened and released. It can be millions of displaced nanofibers washed away with wastewater in a standard load.

Lowering to 30°C and shortening wash times will also reduce kW demand, saving you money.

Tighter weaves, less shedding

An Italian study by the Institute of Polymers, Composites and Biomaterials (IPCB) in 2020, titled impossible, found less loss of – “a very compact woven structure and highly twisted yarns made of continuous filaments, compared to those with a looser structure (knitted, short fibers, lower twist).

That doesn’t mean more expensive flat-weave garments get a pass — all synthetic garments are susceptible to shedding fibers in the wash.

Retrofitting an output filter

Reducing lint and gathering the microfleece at the source in terms of washing is ideal. That’s a big ask, but if you have around $60 and are handy enough, there are micro-plastic filters to fit more washing machine brands.

Planetcare offers a starter kit with three replacement filters to last up to 60 loads that they claim will reduce microfiber loss to your wastewater by 90%. The adaptation time is only ten minutes, planetcare.org

Use a “nano-ball” or woven, mono-filament laundry bag

Placed directly in the wash, the Cora Ball grabs tangled fibers and hair into fabrics, reducing the level of microfiber shedding. It’s about 33% effective according to their third-party testing and costs just under $50 (buy a set of three for $115 with a few interested friends if you want free shipping from the US).

According to the German Fraunhofer Institute UMSICHT, on average 86% less synthetic clothing fibers break when washed with a Guppyfriend laundry bag.

Fibers that break collect in the corners of the wash bag. Most of the microfiber is trapped directly in the bag. By introducing a closed envelope, the mechanical wash fins of your machine may not work as efficiently. At the price of 30€ plus delivery.

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