“Oh, the places you’ll go.”
This is not a reference I never thought I’d conjure while staring at dirty clothes in my laundry hamper. I recently came across a scientific paper from University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) researchers who investigated the global contributions of laundry graywater to microplastic emissions, finding roughly 5.6 million metric tons (MMT) of synthetic microfibers—threads smaller than 5 millimeters in length—have been released from apparel washing between 1950 and 2016.Half of this amount was emitted just in the past 10 years. Nearly 3 MMT of these microfibers have entered waterbodies and a combined 2.5 MMT have been either applied to terrestrial environments (1.9 MMT) or landfilled (0.6 MMT).
This research stems from a 2017 Microfiber Leadership Summit convened by Ocean Conservancy at UCSB, which brought together academics, NGOs and corporate leaders to map pathways and accelerate research, testing and innovation that improve our understanding of microfiber pollution and its impacts on human and environmental health.
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Microfibers are commonly found in the environment, where they pervade aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and are absorbed or consumed by plants and animals. Unfortunately, microplastics (including microfibers) cannot effectively be removed from the environment once they have been released. Instead, they become integrated into the global microplastic cycle. The most effective means for reducing this form of pollution, as presented by the USCB researchers, is preventing it at the source: our washing machines.
While opportunities do exist to improve fabric properties so they better resist microfiber shedding, perhaps an even simpler solution is to prevent microfiber-laden graywater from exiting our washing machines in the first place. Front-load washing machines agitate clothing less than top-load machines do, meaning fewer microfibers are generated throughout the laundering process. Additionally, pollution control technologies like fiber catchment-integrated machines prevent a large proportion of the microplastics generated through laundering from being transmitted in graywater to wastewater treatment plants (WWTP), extracted with biosolids at WWTP and applied on land as fertilizer. These washing machines with built-in fiber filters are gaining traction around the world. They are currently in use in Japan, and will be required in France starting in 2025.
Not in the market for a new washing machine? No problem! Research coauthored by Ocean Conservancy staff found in-washer devices and external filters are effective methods to capture microfibers in the wash. There are also a number of low-tech laundry tricks that can reduce microfiber shedding, including: washing clothing items less frequently, hand-washing when feasible, washing in cold water and using a mild detergent.
In light of UCSB’s findings, I now see the once-onerous laundry day as an opportunity to reduce my household’s microplastic emissions. As I turn the washing machine dial to cold, shift the cycle to delicate and drop in my dirty clothes, I delight in knowing the bulk of microfibers from my clothing won’t be globetrotting any time soon.