We all know that things like straws, oil, and garbage are polluting our oceans, but one pollutant you probably haven’t considered is your laundry. We’re not talking about toxins from chemical filled detergents either but rather, the clothes themselves.
Today, the majority of our clothes (about 60%) are made from synthetic materials like polyester, acrylic, and nylon, which are all forms of plastic. When we wash these fabrics, the plastics leach from the material in the form of microplastics and end up in our oceans and water systems.
Microplastics come from a variety of sources including plastic cups and bags and personal hygiene items, but our clothing is a huge contributor. The mesh screen that collects lint in your dryer catches larger particles, but these microplastics are tiny enough to slip through the wash. A 2017 International Union for Conservation of Nature report estimated that about 35% of microplastics in the ocean come from synthetic textiles.
“Think about how many people are washing their clothes on a daily basis, and how many clothes we all have,” says Imogen Napper, a marine scientist at the University of Plymouth. “Even when we’re walking around, not washing our clothes, tiny fibers are falling off. It’s everywhere.”
Microplastics may sound small and unimportant, after all their diameter is measured in micrometers, but in large quantities, these tiny little particles can potentially have major effect. Microplastic pollution is being recognized as an increasingly harmful issue, and a recent study showed that the previous estimate of there being 5 trillion particles in the ocean was a gross understatement.
The number itself may be hard to pinpoint, but researchers have no doubt that the effect is significant: “Undoubtedly,” saysFlavia Salvador Cesa, a microplastics researcher at the University of São Paul, “fibers are an important contributor to plastic pollution.”
These microplastics are being ingested by sea life who mistake them for food and are finding their way back into our own diets via tap water and consumption of sea life. One recent study found that 73% of fish caught in mid-ocean depths in the Northwest Atlantic had microplastic in their stomachs. This could potentially be a huge issue, and we don’t yet know the effect this will have on either the animals that ingest them or the entire food chain and eco system.
Studies have estimated that anywhere from 700 000 to over 1 million particles can be released per laundry load. While the majority of these particles are caught by water treatment systems, a portion of it does still reach the ocean, and once it’s there we currently have no real way of removing it. And as we all know, plastics can take a very long time to break down, so what is already in the ocean likely isn’t going away any time soon.
A recent study conducted in Vancouver, Canada found that while the city’s treatment plants remove around 1.8 trillion plastic particles from waste water each year, around 30 million particles were still making it into the ocean.
"Most of those, 71 per cent are fibres, 29 per cent are other things like polystyrene beads or microbeads from toothpaste and facial scrubs or little fragments of mystery particles," says Peter Ross, the study's principal investigator and vice-president of research at Ocean Wise.
These microplastics aren’t only ending up in our ocean either. General wear and tear of clothing results in the fibers being released into the air around us
Knowing that these microplastics are having huge implications to both our environment and our health, researchers are now turning their attention to finding solutions to the problem.
One proposed solution is for consumers to make a shift to buying clothing made from natural fibers, such as wool and organic cotton. Of course, we are huge supporters of this because of the massive positive impact it has, not only on our oceans, but also our environment as a whole, workers’ rights, our own health, and more. Unfortunately, this is not an affordable option for everyone. At SOL, we aim to keep our prices as affordable as possible, because we believe organic products are a luxury that should be afforded to as many people as possible.
Still, converting all fabrics to organic is just not realistic for the average consumer. When possible, it is great to purchase items made from natural fibers, but a wider reaching solution needs to be put in place if we’re going to see real change.
In a recent article written in Vox, two potentially feasible solutions were discussed.
The first is to redesign washing machines so they release less particles into the water. Mark Browne, an environmental scientist at University College Dublin says,“washing machines need to be designed to reduce emissions of fibers to the environment; at the moment they are not.”
Changes can also be made to the fabrics themselves. A switch to fabrics that shed less could have a great effect on the level of pollution.
Of course, the average person isn’t able to redesign a washing machine or create new types of materials, but there are immediate steps we as consumers can make. Purchasing less clothing and washing our clothing less are two easy ways to reduce our own microplastic output into the environment (not to mention, both of these steps will have you time and money!). Washing clothes in cold water and using less detergent are also believed to help reduce the release of microplastics.
To recap, the following changes can be made at the consumer level to reduce the release of microplastics into our environment
-Purchase clothing and bedding made of natural, organic fibers when possible.
-Reduce the amount of clothing you purchase
-Reduce the amount of laundry you do, and wait until you have a full load before running your washer
-Wash clothing in cold water
-Use less detergent per load.
These simple changes, added up over time, can help to significantly reduce the amount of microplastic pollution in our environment. While changes need to be made on a larger scale as well, the impact made by our personal choices shouldn’t be overlooked or downplayed!