Plastic soup

By washing clothes, we're doing irreparable damage to our oceans

21st April 2018

The growing concern about the use of microbeads in toothpaste, face washes and shower gels finally led to a ban on the production of these products by the British government in January, which will come into effect in July later this year. While that’s a great relief to anyone who cares about the environment, there may be an even more worrying trend, which most people will be unknowingly contributing towards.

Microplastics are very small pieces of plastic which are released into the environment from the disposal and breakdown of human products. These tiny plastics have been the cause of much recent concern due to their harmful effect on the environment, and just like microbeads, the microplastic fibres released from washing your clothes may be incredibly damaging to the oceans.

A study conducted by a team at Plymouth University has shown that more than 728,000 microscopic plastic fibres can be released from your average 6kg washing machine load. Very few of these microfibres are caught in sewage treatment works — the rest are released into our rivers and oceans.

Up to 17 million fibres may be released in every wash

“Our research team literally counted these tiny fibres and discovered that actually up to 17 million may be released in every wash,” says Maria Westerbos, director of the Plastic Soup Foundation, a non-profit campaign group.

Microfibres have been found across many aquatic environments, along beaches, in surface waters and in the Arctic and deep sea, indicating that this is a global problem, and it is thought that the amount of these fibres entering our waters is increasing.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that 35% of all primary plastics which end up in our oceans have come from textiles, making it the largest source of microplastics, followed by those which come from the degradation of car tyres (28%).

Microfibres range in size from micromillimeters to more than five millimetres in length, and a range of fibres can be released depending on the material of the clothes you wash. As the clothes toss and turn, the fibres rub together making those little bobbly bits and these can fall off and be released into the washing water.

Natural fibres come from materials such as wool and cotton, synthetic fibres come from man-made materials such as nylon, and many clothes are created from a natural-synthetic fibre blend. The study conducted by the Plymouth research team concluded that acrylic materials release the most fibres (728,789), followed by polyester (496,030) and lastly polyester-cotton mix (137,951). More fibres are lost in the first wash of an item of clothing, however a considerable number of fibres are still lost with consistent washing.

clothing
Plastic fibres from our clothes are a real danger to the oceans

So, how do these microplastic fibres affect the environment?

It is thought that the microfibres can poison the food chain, affect an animal’s digestive system, affect how organisms absorb energy through their food and, interestingly, it has been found that these fibres can affect the behaviour of some crabs.

“These fibres can affect the smallest of organisms and the rest of the food chain,” says Westerbos. “Plankton have been seen to eat and breathe fibres and other species such as worms have less energy and grow much slower because of them.

“Recently, it has been suggested that there is a link between microplastic fibres and lung cancer in humans too as we can inhale them.”

These fibres have been found not only in aquatic environments but in tap water, upon leaves and in honey too. 

As with most processes, more research is needed to understand the scale and severity of microplastic fibres from textiles, however, the consensus is that something needs to be done to decrease the amount of fibres entering our waters, and there are a few things that we can start doing now:

The water temperature, length of washing time and the hardness of water also affect the amount of fibres released, so it is advised that we decrease the length of our washing cycles and temperature.

“Additionally, there are teams working on innovative new washing machine filters to help capture microfibres,” says Westerbos. “They are only in the testing phase but this is a great start.”

Invention

A few years ago, a washing machine filter to stop the blockage of septic tanks from clothing fibres was designed, and now the inventors from this are working closely with scientists to try and create a filter for washing machines that release fibres directly into wastewater systems.

There are a few organisations already dedicated to solving this environmental issue too.

The Mermaids Life + project is dedicated to mitigating the environmental impacts from the release of microplastic fibres. Their aim is to “demonstrate and implement innovative technologies and additives for laundry processes and textile finishing treatments”.

It is always about money over the environment

There is also the Ocean Clean Wash campaign, which was initiated by the Plastic Soup Foundation. This campaign has already brought together more than 100 supporters from across the world and the attention of more than 30 fashion brands has already been grasped.

Although there are projects in place and things we can do at home, the most effective action relies on the clothing designers and manufacturers. Manufacturers should focus on making products recyclable after use, long lasting during use and less likely to shed microfibres, yet little has been done by these companies so far.

“It is always about money over the environment,” explains Westerbos.

“In an ideal world, clothing manufacturers, policy makers and environmental organisations would sit around a table, cooperate easily and come up with sustainable solutions to this huge environmental problem. If that could be achieved, then I would be very happy indeed.”

21st April 2018