How Doing The Laundry Can Pollute The Environment

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In today's society, most people try to live life in an environmentally-sustainable manner as possible.

Appliances have become more energy-efficient and we try to only use the water and electricity that we really need. We all know plastics are really harmful to the environment, and it's been several years since the Supermarkets realized this, too.

You may be as surprised as I was to learn every time we do the laundry, hundreds of thousands of microplastics are released from clothes into the water. 

Scientists estimate that a single UK Waste Treatment Plant expels 65 million microplastic fibres into water every single day. And we have around 9,000 plants in the UK alone.

In this article, I'll discuss why this happens and how we can reduce the effects our clothes and washing machines have on the environment.

The Plastic In Our Clothes

If you asked the average person what they're clothes were made out of, how many would say "Plastic"?

The fact is, a lot of modern clothes contain synthetic-fibers such as Nylon, Polyester and Acrylic. In other words - plastics.

Clothes made using synthetic plastics are quicker, cheaper and easier to make. They can also last longer. Sadly, that also applies to how long they take to degrade.

Garments made from polyester and nylon take around 40 years to degrade. To make a quick comparison, those made from wool only take one year.

Every time we put an item of clothing in the wash, it sheds thousands of fibres through pilling.

The Problem of Pilling

"Pills" are when very small, round fibers form on the surface of clothes.  If you've ever ironed a football shirt or school uniform they are usually easy to see. 

"Pills" are when very small, round fibres form on the surface of clothes.  If you've had a school uniform or a football shirt for a while they are usually easy to see.

Pilling happens over the course of time due to wear and tear and during the laundry process. The mechanical action of a washing machine causes friction and fibers can break and tangle together.

Eventually, the pill is pulled free and when this happens inside the washing machine, they are washed away with the water. 

Unfortunately, this is not just one or two loose fibers that are getting into the water. Scientific studies show that one garment can release over 1,900 microfibers per wash.

microplastics in laundry

How Microfibers Pollute Our Lands, Rivers & Oceans

After microplastics enter the water in our washing machine, they are washed away and taken to a waste water treatment plant.

Waste water treatment plants have two kinds of filters - coarse screens and fine screens. Fine screens are capable of filtering out foreign objects that are between 1.5mm - 6.mm in diameter.

Sadly, this is still too big to stop a lot of microplastics, and they can pass through the filter and enter rivers, streams and our food chain.

microplastics in food chain

Some of the microfibers do get caught up with the rest of the sewage sludge at the treatment plant. This sludge is disposed of as fertilizer or dumped at sea (something Surfers Against Sewage and Greenpeace has long campaigned against).

This shows that the plastic fibres from our clothes can end up pretty much anywhere. As they don't bio-degrade, they'll also be around for decades, too.

Here is a great (but disturbing) video from "The Story of Stuff" showing how they can up in everywhere and in our food chain:

Scientists Study The Problem

A scientific-study was performed at Plymouth University to try and measure just how many fibres are released during washing.

The scientists purchased 4 sweaters from stores on the high-street. They washed the sweaters four times before beginning their experiment. Using special filters, they were able to catch the microplastics in washing machine water.

Here are their findings:

scientists washing machine experiment

As you can see, they found hundreds of thousands of microplastic fibres being released every wash. 

What makes this even worse is they only used a 6kg washing machine! This is pretty small, and many homes in the UK have 8kg - 10kg machines, so the results would be much higher.

Out of all the synthetic materials tested, they found a polyester-cotton blend released the least amount of microplastics, and up to 80% less than clothes made with acrylic (found in a lot of sweaters and tracksuits).

The scientists also tested different kinds of detergents, but their results were inconclusive.

One thing they did identify as being a problem was using fabric softener. Softener was found to increase pilling and the number of fibres which broke off inside the washing machine.

What Can Be Done?

The easy answer to stop microplastic pollution is to work with the apparrel industry to adopt higher safety standards for clothes.

Sadly, according to this article in the Guardian, it doesn't look like they are in a hurry to do this. I would imagine it would significantly impact their bottom line.

Also, there is a real lack of research performed in this area. The study by Plymouth University was one of the few of it's kind.

The Guardian references a 3-year European research study called "Project Mermaid". This is a European research project with the stated aim of reducing microfiber shedding by 70%.

The research was performed by a private consortium. They shared their results with the EU, but it seems any preventative measures are a while off.

In a recently released report, they are calling for more research tthroughout 2018 to understand the scope of the problem.

​Some industry manufacturers are trying to come up with innovations to help solve the problem.

Better Washing Machine Filters

Some companies are starting to produce special filters which can attach to any washing machine.

They are designed to filter out microplastics in particular.

There are a couple of problems. The first is that they are pretty expensive. The second is they are not widely available outside of the USA.

However, the Filtrol 160 Lint Filter (pictured) is available through the manufacturer's online store, and they can ship to the U.K.

It still begs the question though - why aren't  these filters included as standard given the serious nature of the microplastic problem?

Cora Balls 

An nnovation that tackles the problem of microplastic solution is the Cora Ball.

The design of the Cora Ball used nature as it's inspiration as it uses the same principles as coral. 

Simply place the ball into your washing machine, and water can flow through it whilst the ball picks up microfibers and hairs in its stalks.

The Cora Ball had a really successful Kickstarter campaign. They were hoping to reach a target of $10,000, but so far they have reached over $350,000 which is great news!

Here is a video of the Cora Ball in action:

Washing Bags

Guppyfriend, have invented a washing bag which prevents microplastics getting into the water. They state it catches 99% of all fibers shed - which is great!

guppyfriend bag

Guppyfriend ran a Kickstarter campaign to get their project funded.  Sadly it was not as successful as the Cora Ball, and only received only 668 backers 🙁

I think this shows the general  lack of awareness around the problem.

I will order one after I finish this article to show my support and hopefully report back in a future blog post.

Buy Fewer Clothes

Buying fewer clothes and wearing them for longer will help reduce microfiber shedding.

Of course, reducing the amount of laundry you do would also help. However, this could be pretty unheignic, especially when it comes to work wear and school uniforms.

Buying fewer clothes also reduces microfiber shedding in the production process (at textile mills) and problems after old clothes have been thrown away, too.

Wear Environmentally-Friendly Clothes

As we can see from Plymouth University's research, some clothes shed significantly more microfibres than others.

Their study showed that clothes made from a synthetic-natural blend (such as polyester-cotton) released 80% fewer fibres than those made from acrylic.

There is also a problem with cheap clothes such as fleeces which shed a lot of microfibres. 

An easy solution could be to only wear natural fibres like cotton, silk and wool. This might not be practical for cost issues. 
As we can see from Plymouth University's research, some clothes shed significantly more microfibres than others.

Their study showed that clothes made from a synthetic-natural blend (such as polyester-cotton) released 80% fewer fibres than those made from acrylic.

There is also a problem with cheap clothes such as fleeces which shed a lot of microfibres. 

An easy solution could be to only wear natural fibres like cotton, silk and wool. This might not be practical for cost issues. 

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) also identify cotton farming as a "Water Wasting Crop" as it takes 20,000 litres of water to produce just 1kg of cotton.

Bio-synthetic fabrics such as Lyocell and PLA are increasing in popularity as they use recycled materials and sustainable production processes.

Lyocell is a fabric made from wood pulp harvested from substainable tree farms.

PLA fabrics are made using Polylactic Acid, which is completely bio-degradable and made from corn starch and sugarcane.

Help Raise Awareness

I would like to consider myself well-versed in world issues, though I didn't know about the microplastic problem until very recently.

It makes me sad that in a celebrity-obssesed world, real issues like this aren't given the attention they deserve. As we saw with the European research project, they are not given the funding, either.

Awareness of a problem is always the first step in finding solutions. You can tell your friends and family, or share posts around this issue on social media.  

There is also "Ocean Clean Wash", an entire website dedicated to the problem. The website is a campaign by "The Plastic Soup Foundation" to stop microfiber pollution in our oceans.

To further help raise awareness, we have created the following infographic which summarizes the research findings and ways of taking action.

plastic ocean infographic

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