An estimated 8 million tons of plastic enters the ocean each year. While it’s easy to blame plastic bags and bottles, straws and other containers, there’s one unlikely culprit you might not have considered: laundry.
Studies have shown that clothes washing can contribute by some estimates 1 million microfibers, also called fiber fragments, into waterways with each laundry load. These small fibers—less than 5mm—have also been found on mountain tops in the Alps, on shorelines and in soils around the globe.
So how does clothing contribute? Basically, it comes down to friction. According to LifeLabs Design sustainability expert Nicole Kenney, even swishing your arms while walking can cause the fibers on your clothes to shed. This process is increased 10-fold in a washing machine, where agitation is the primary means to get clothes clean.
“It’s not something you think about when you put on clothes,” Kenney continued. “We usually think: do I look good? Feel good? Is this an accurate representation of me?” Not: am I contributing to microfiber pollution?
How textiles contribute to microfiber waste
You might also be thinking: wait a minute, this just pertains to plastics, right? No. Studies have found that natural fibers like cotton and wool produce microfibers, as do synthetic materials like polyester, nylon and lycra. This is both due to how fibers shed but it also has to do with how the fabrics are dyed and finished.
“If you dye cotton with a synthetic indigo, it’s not going to break down naturally the way undyed cotton would,” Kenney explains. “Regardless of fiber, the dyeing and finishing step plays a huge role in the biodegradability of fabrics.”
That’s one reason why choosing clothes free of PFCs (perflorochemicals)—often called a ‘forever chemical’—is important. PFCs are commonly used for waterproofing, but they persist far longer than untreated fabrics do. And when PFC treated fibers break off, they “are so small and the little fish eat them, the big fish eat the little fish and we eat the big fish. Those little particles are going into our systems also.”
Fast fashion has also taken heat for accelerating the accumulation of microfibers. The industry’s reliance on cheap materials and toxic dye processes contributes to the approximately 500,000 tons of microfibers are released into oceans each year from textiles. This is the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles. That’s a whole lot of micro waste.
Room for research
Although fiber shedding has been known about for years, dedicated research on it is relatively new thing. But the research has proven to be challenging because there are so many variables involved in measuring fiber shedding, including water temperature, agitation speed, how fabrics are cut (edges make them more likely to shed), yarn thickness and more.
An additional unknown is how harmful these microfibers are to human health (though we are ingesting microfibers through some fish we eat and water we drink). Studies are underway to determine health impacts. In the meantime, unless we regulate, prevent or reduce microfiber shedding, the problem, and its proliferation, is going to get worse.
How we can prevent fiber shedding
In light of what we do know about microfiber pollution and waste, there are some things that can be done to reduce the accumulation of particles in oceans, soils and shorelines.
Use a filter. There’s a growing movement to make microfiber filters mandatory in washing machines. No major appliance companies have released plans to do this yet, but given how much attention the problem has been getting, that could change soon. In the meantime, you can install your own filter, such as the Lint LUV-R which prevents up to 80% of the microfibers released by your clothes from entering your wastewater.
You can also wash your clothes in a special bag, like the GuppyFriend , which prevents microfibers from entering your wastewater system. The bags are relatively small, so you can cut your water waste further by using two bags for one load.
The simplest solutions are ones you’ve probably already heard; they’re in line with other energy-reducing sustainability efforts we all have at our fingertips at any given time: wash your clothes less frequently, use cold water, buy higher quality clothes less often and line dry instead of using the dryer.
You can also use slower wash cycles (less agitation = fewer fibers released) and make sure you’re choosing plastic-free detergent.
Though we still have much to learn about textile derived microfibers, we know enough that we can start working to prevent them from getting into the ocean. By following a few simple steps, including being conscious of where our clothes come from and how they're cared for, we can all do our part to reduce microfiber pollution.