Plastic fiber pollution is one of the biggest problems in marine conservation today, with more than 700,000 plastic fibers polluting the ocean for every 6 kg of laundry. 

Until the beginning of the 20th century, all clothing was made from natural fibers. But today, more manufactures are switching to synthetic fibers – such as,rayon, acrylic, polyester, and nylon – to make clothing. The downside to this alternative is that these clothing items are shedding toxic fibers during machine washing, and these fibers are contributing to the large source of the micro plastics polluting the oceans. Unfortunately, sewage treatment plants cannot effectively filter out these microfibers, and according to our partners at the Plastic Soup Foundation, this epidemic is the biggest source of plastic pollution. 

British researchers from the University of Plymouth have conducted studies to help answer some essential questions, such as: how great the loss of fibers is, and under which circumstances the loss of fibers be reduced – such as whether washing at different temperatures, or using different detergents. 

They tested the loss of fibers when washing clothing made completely from synthetic fibers, as well as clothing made up of a mixture of synthetic and natural (i.e cotton) fibers at different temperatures (30 and 40 degrees) and using different detergents. 

washing synthetic fibers

Photo via PSF and Ocean Clean Wash

Their results found that clothing made of synthetic fibers produced the most fibers (728,789 fibers) per wash and these are fibers with an average diameter of 14.05 μm and length of 5.44 mm. That is five times more than the mixed (synthetic and natural fibers) fabric, and another study conducted by Napper & Thompson (2016) confirms these results that hundreds of thousands of fibers may be lost with every wash, with more than 700,000 plastic fibers for every 6 kg of laundry. 

Head research Richard Thompson spoke to the Guardian and claimed that, at a larger scale, the “industry [i.e. fashion companies and producers of washing machines, detergents, and yarns] needs to think about the design of fabrics to ensure their environmental emissions are minimised.” 

As a result, groups such as Plastic Soup Foundation, Parley for the Oceans, Rozalia Project, and GUPPY FRIEND are working to develop solutions as well as innovations to help clean and protect the ocean.

Plastic Soup Foundation Microfibers

Photo via PSF and Ocean Clean Wash


Photo via PSF and Ocean Clean Wash

How can YOU reduce the amount of fibers you shed in your washing machine?

  1. Fill up your washing machine to the max: washing a full load results in less friction between the clothes and, therefore, less fibers are released.
  2. Use washing liquid instead of powder: the ‘scrub’ function of the grains of the powder result in loosening the fibers of clothes more than with liquid.
  3. Use fabric softener: some ingredients in fabric softeners reduce friction between fibers so the release decreases.
  4. Wash at a low temperature: when clothes are washed at a high temperature some fabrics are damaged, leading to the release of fibers.
  5. Avoid long washings: long periods of washing cause more friction between fabrics, which supposes more tearing of the fibers.
  6. Dry spin clothes at low revs: higher revolutions increase the friction between the clothes, resulting in higher chances of fibers loosening.
  7. Avoid buying synthetic clothes and look for wool, cotton, linen, silk, cashmere or other natural fabrics.

What can corporations do about plastic fiber pollution?

A few ideas:

Clothing companies have to change how they create clothing

Clothing companies need to keep their clothing as clean as possible. Cheap clothing sheds more fibers, therefore better quality clothing, or fabrics coated with an anti-shed treatment could also help. 

Technology needs to keep up 

The problem ultimately starts in your laundry, therefore groups such as Rozalia Project, and GUPPY FRIEND are working to create awareness about products such as the “microfiber catcher” or the “GUPPY FRIEND wash bag” to help filter out the tiniest microfibers that are released during washing so more people can effectively wash their clothes without releasing toxic fibers into rivers and oceans. 

Something known as a “nanoball”  can also be thrown into a washing machine to attract and capture plastic fibers.

Waterless washing machines could also be a solution. 

Colorado-based Tersus Solutions have “developed a completely waterless washing machine in which textiles are washed in pressurized carbon dioxide.”

Source: Napper, I.E, & Thompson, R.C. (2016). Release of synthetic microplastic plastic fibres from domestic washing machines: Effects of fabric type and washing conditions. Marine Pollution Bulletin. 112(1–2), 39–45.

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