Washing clothes, particularly those containing synthetic fibres, is a major source of environmental pollution.
We take a look at the issue and suggest some simple steps you can take to reduce it...
There is a certain irony in the fact that washing our clothes causes pollution.
But every time we do the laundry, hundreds of thousands of tiny fibres - known as microfibres - are washed off our clothes, down the drain and into the environment.
As many as 700,000 microfibres can be released from a single load of laundry.
In the UK alone it’s estimated that at least 9 trillion microfibres are released into the waste water system every week.
A significant number of these pass through water treatment facilities and flow freely into rivers and oceans - where they become marine pollution that can be ingested by all kinds of creatures, and enter our food chain and water supplies.
Microfibres and Microplastics
All our clothes shed fibres when they are washed, regardless of the material they are made from.
This will come as no surprise to anyone who owns a tumble dryer.
The ‘fluff’ that gets caught in the dryer filter is the same material – clothing fibres – that break off in the wash.
A significant proportion of these are microplastics - shed from garments which are made from synthetic materials like nylon and polyester.
Good examples of clothing manufactured from man-made fibres include high performance sports and outdoor garments, as well as any item with 'stretch'.
These synthetic microfibres are sometimes referred to as microplastic fibres (or microplastic fibers in the US!) and collectively they are the single biggest source of primary microplastics entering our oceans every year.
Globally, it amounts to about 500,000 tonnes per annum - this is equivalent to every single person on the planet throwing 15 plastic shopping bags directly into the sea, every year.
A Growing Problem
In many households around the world, washing machines have become essential items.
There are something like 800 million in use around the world today and an average household will use their machine about four times a week.
That’s a lot of laundry releasing a lot of microfibres and, as the global population increases, more washing machines in more households will mean more microfibres are released into the environment every day - until something is done to stop it.
Stopping the Flow
A permanent solution will require action at many levels and include:
- Producing clothes and textiles that don’t shed as many microfibres
- Buying fewer clothes and washing them less often
- Developing better wastewater management systems
Another obvious place for attention is our washing machines.
A very significant proportion of the microfibres released during laundry cycles could be prevented from entering the environment by simply re-engineering washing machines to include filtration technology to prevent microfibre release.
But today, there are no washing machines on sale that have this technology.
We believe there should be.
So do others.
But until filtration technology is standard in all new washing machines, we will continue to pollute the environment every time we do the laundry.
Fortunately, there are some simple, practical steps you can take to mitigate the issue until you are able to purchase a new machine incorporating effective filtration technology...
Keep Clothes for Longer
New clothes are great. The first time we wear them they look and feel amazing.
Sadly, that look and feel can quickly fade as a result of washing.
But while they may look great, new clothes also release significantly more microfibres than older garments when they are washed.
At Xeros, our own data shows that a new garment may shed as many as 8 times more microfibres than the same garment after 5 washes. After that, microfibre release stabilises at a much lower level.
So, buying fewer new clothes and keeping the ones we have for longer can significantly reduce microfibre release during washing.
Wash Less Often
There is lot of debate around how often you need to wash different garments for hygiene purposes, and how often you should wash them to get them clean.
The CEO of the denim company Levi made headlines recently by saying he rarely washes his jeans and denim aficionados actually argue you should never wash them.
The chances are we all wash garments far more frequently that we need to. And if each wash produces 700,000 microfibres, it stands to reason that fewer wash cycles will reduce the number of microfibres released to the environment.
Turn off the Tap!
One major factor affecting microfibre release is water. The more water that is used during a wash cycle, the more microfibres are released.
Studies have shown that by reducing the volume of water used during washing cycles, the number of microfibres released from garments can be reduced significantly.
This simple step can reduce microfibre release by as much as 30%.
But be aware that some wash cycles which may sound like they could help – like delicate cycles – can actually make matters worse.
That’s because they use more water and, as a result, more microfibres are shed.
Line dry or Tumble dry
If you can, you should probably line dry clothes rather than tumble dry them.
Our data shows that while the lint filter in a tumble dryer can capture shed fibres, the process of tumbling could lead to a higher rate of shedding as the strength of the fibres may be reduced.
Although, from an environmental perspective, by far the biggest advantage of line drying is saving energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Stop buying Synthetics?
One suggestion that many support is to stop buying synthetic garments and only buy clothes made using natural fibres. But ALL fibres shed microfibres, regardless of whether they are cotton or nylon.
For a long time researchers felt that natural microfibres didn’t matter because they would degrade in the environment - something synthetics don’t do.
But researchers are now questioning whether this is true...
Scientists are finding that natural fibres can persist in the environment for a very long time, due to chemical treatments applied during manufacture.
Many of the chemicals they are treated with can also be toxic to wildlife.
Additionally, ALL microfibres can attract harmful pollutants which are already present in the environment.
On that basis, it makes no sense to favour natural over synthetic garments – plus, the land, water and fertiliser used to grow cotton means it is far from a sustainable choice.
Lobby for Washing Machine Filters
Effective in-machine filtration can make a significant difference to the sustainability of our laundry.
To date, only one manufacturer has committed to installing filtration in new washing machines, but these machines are not yet available to buy.
Environmental charities are lobbying for laws to be changed so ALL new domestic washing machines have filtration technology.
In the UK, the Marine Conservation Society is campaigning for legislation to mandate filtration in washing machines. Supporting their campaign and spreading the word would be a great thing to do.
If you’re in the process of choosing or buying a new washing machine, ask the retailer why none of the models they sell have filters fitted as standard (despite all of the models they stock having seemingly glowing environmental ratings) or even better, ask the manufacturer directly.
While you're at it, why not contact your MP to ask what they are doing about this issue?
Solutions built into the machine are best
Recent studies by the University of Plymouth tested the effectiveness of various devices at preventing microfibre release from laundry.
The results showed that the best washing machine filter, XFiltra (an in-machine filter designed to be installed by manufacturers in new washing machines), can catch almost 80% of all microfibres,
Today, several companies sell filters that you can buy to plumb into your current washing machine waste pipes - assuming you have the space outside the machine to mount the equipment and the technical know-how to install it (or a good plumber on call), as well as the ability to afford them.
However, Plymouth’s peer-reviewed scientific study showed that these devices, which are not integral to the machine, caught as little as a quarter of the microfibres.
The same study also looked at how effective laundry bags and balls could be in preventing microfibre release. The best example prevented just over half of microfibre release and the worst little more than 20%.
But even when these products have done their job, how do you collect and dispose of the microfibres they catch?
The chances are, many people will simply run them under a tap – entirely defeating the object and flushing the microfibers straight down the drain.
They can also reduce machine capacity and wash performance, leaving your clothes not washed to the same standard as you normally expect, and they are only designed for use with synthetic garments.
Keep it Simple
Buying products like external filters and laundry bags help consumers take small, positive steps towards limiting the microfibre pollution released from their laundry.
Yet in actual fact, simple steps like washing less often and using low-water cycles will probably have a far greater impact.
Other ideas, like getting clothes manufacturers to perform pre-sale, filtered washing of new garments to remove the initial high level of microfibre loss, could dramatically reduce the overall release of microfibres from household laundry.
Garment manufacturers already perform washing cycles before finished clothes are sold to consumers, so simply need to introduce filtration technology into their equipment.
But the quickest, and cheapest step to minimise microfibre pollution from household laundry will be for all washing machines to be fitted with filtration technology as standard.
France has taken a first step to making this happen with sweeping environmental legislation.
If washing machine manufacturers don’t now take a lead on this, it’s likely other Governments will soon follow France’s example and force the issue.
A recent statement from the UK’s environment secretary sums it up:
...manufacturers should harness the latest technology to protect our marine environment and we are keeping the compulsory fitting of microplastic filters under close review.