In addition to water and energy consumption, laundry is a source of another serious environmental problem: fiber pollution. microplastics.
As your clothes and sheets bounce around in the washing machine and tumble in the dryer, they shed tiny fibers – many of which are tiny bits of plastic from synthetic fabrics like polyester – that can end up in rivers, oceans and the air. .
Microfibers are the most abundant type of plastic at the environment, according to studies. Microplastics have also been discovered in human excrement – suggesting that they exist even inside people’s bodies.
“We know that we are exposed to microplastics from many sources”, confirms Britta Baechler, director of studies on plastics oceanic in Ocean Conservancy, an environmental advocacy organization, adding that the impacts of microplastics on human health are still being studied. Some research has already proven that exposure to microplastics can have negative health effects in certain animals.
While textiles can shed microfibers as they are made or used, re-evaluating how you wash your clothes can help make a difference. A single machine wash of synthetic clothing can release millions of these tiny fibers.
The most impactful way to combat microfiber pollution is to develop better textiles, summarizes Kelly Sheridan, director of research at The Microfibre Consortium, which works to reduce microfiber shedding in the textile industry. This person also adds that, most of the time, it is the construction of the pieces and how the fabric is processed that determines the amount of microfibers they will release.
It can also help at home. Here’s how:
Can I reduce pollution if I switch to natural fabrics?
While many studies show that polyester and other synthetic clothing can be a great source of harmful microplastic fibers, choosing to use more natural fabrics like cotton is not as simple a solution as it sounds.
“When you turn a cotton plant into a fiber that is used in garments, the cotton is processed in a way that makes its original chemical structure different,” says Kelly Sheridan. “A cotton fiber in its final state does not necessarily degrade, and if it does, it will be a much slower process.”
“As it biodegrades,” he adds, “what chemicals are being released into the environment?”
Natural fibers have been found in the oceans. A peer-reviewed study, published in 2020, analyzed water samples from oceans around the world and reported that most of the fibers found were dyed cellulose, not plastic.
“The assumption that natural fibers are not a problem has certainly not been proven,” cautions Sheridan.
How do I wash my clothes and reduce microfibers?
The first step is to reduce the number of times we put clothes in the washing machine.
Ask yourself if you really need to wash something after you’ve used it once, says Elena Karpova, a professor at the University of North Carolina who studies sustainability textile.
And since microfibers are also released from dryers, try to air dry your clothes more often.
Machine washing and drying your clothes less often can also help them last longer, creating other environmental benefits as well, such as reduced water and energy consumption.
Some studies suggest that machine washing with large amounts of water and more agitation can increase microfiber loss. Experts recommend making full-sized loads, rather than using the machine half or half full.
It can also be beneficial to wash clothes at a lower temperature and for a shorter amount of time, as hotter, longer washes can produce more polluting fibers.
If you can, use a front-loading machine, which has been found to generate less microfiber release than top-loading machines.
Do filters and other laundry devices work?
There are several devices designed to combat microfiber pollution, including machine filters, laundry bags and balls. Studies suggest that filters may be the most effective.
In a laboratory study, for example, the filter that was tested captured an average of 87 percent of the fibers. Another study examined the impact of installing filters in nearly 100 homes in a small town in Canada and found a significant reduction in the reduction of microfibers in wastewater, the fluff samples captured by the filters contained an average of up to 2.7 million microfibers per week.
While some washing machine models in other countries may come with these filters included, in the United States they are usually purchased separately and installed, which can be expensive.
Cheaper solutions like laundry bags or balls can also reduce microfiber pollution, however studies show that their effectiveness can vary. A 2020 study of six devices found that a particular filter performed the best, reducing microfiber loss by 70 percent. The laundry bag came in second with a 54 percent reduction, followed by the laundry ball which reduced microfiber shedding by 31 percent.
If you try these devices, be careful to properly dispose of captured fibers by placing them in the trash. A covered bin can help reduce the amount of airborne fiber, he warns. Britta Baechler.
Keep in mind, though, that adopting these tips won’t solve the problem, reminds Kelly Sheridan. But doing “a combination of all these things can only help.”