Beyond guzzling water and gobbling energy, doing laundry is a source of another serious environmental problem: microfiber pollution.
As your clothes and linens churn in the washing machine and tumble around in the dryer, they often shed tiny fibers — many of which are small bits of plastic from synthetic fabrics such as polyester — that can wind up in waterways and the air.
Microfibers are the most abundant type of microplastic found in the environment, according to studies. Microplastics have also been discovered in human waste — suggesting that they’re present inside people’s bodies.
“We know we are exposed to them,” said Britta Baechler, associate director of ocean plastics research at the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental advocacy group. The impacts of microplastics on human health are still being understood, she noted. Some research already shows exposure to microplastics can cause negative health effects in certain animals.
While textiles can also shed microfibers as they’re being made or just by being worn, reassessing how you do laundry can help make a difference. Washing a single load of synthetic clothes can release millions of these minuscule fibers.
The most impactful way to tackle microfiber pollution is developing better textiles, said Kelly Sheridan, research director at the Microfibre Consortium, which works to reduce microfiber release in the textile industry. It’s often the construction of a garment and how the fabric is processed that will determine how much it sheds, Sheridan said.
Still, you can also help at home. Here’s how:
Can I reduce microfiber pollution by switching to natural fabrics?
While many studies show that polyester and other synthetic clothing can be a major source of harmful microplastic fibers, choosing to wear more natural fabrics, such as cotton, isn’t really as simple of a solution as you might think.
“By the time it turns from the cotton plant into a fiber that’s usable for garments, it’s processed such that its original chemical structure is different,” Sheridan said. “A cotton fiber in its finished state doesn’t necessarily degrade, and if it still does, it will be a much slower rate.”
“As it biodegrades,” she continued, “what chemicals is it releasing into the environment?”
Natural fibers have been documented in oceans. One peer-reviewed study published in 2020 analyzed ocean water samples from around the world and reported that most of the fibers found were dyed cellulose, not plastic.
“The assumption that natural fibers are not a problem certainly hasn’t been proven,” Sheridan said.
How do I wash my clothes to reduce microfiber pollution?
Cutting down on how often you do laundry is an easy first step.
Ask yourself if you really need to wash something after only wearing it once, said Elena Karpova, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro who studies textile sustainability.
And since microfibers are also released from dryers, try air drying your clothes more often.
Washing and tumble drying your clothes less frequently can also help them last longer and creates additional environmental benefits, such as reduced energy and water consumption.
Some research suggests that machine-washing clothes in larger amounts of water with more agitation can increase microfiber shedding. Experts recommend doing normal-sized loads rather than running your machine half or partially full.
It can also be helpful to wash your clothes at a lower temperature and for a shorter amount of time because hotter and longer washes can produce more polluting fibers.
If you can, use a front-loading machine, which has been found to generate less microfiber release than top-loading appliances.
Do filters and other laundry devices work?
There are several devices designed to combat microfiber pollution, including washing machine filters as well as laundry bags and balls. Studies suggest that the filters may be the most effective.
In one laboratory study, for instance, the filter that was tested (Lint LUV-R) captured an average of 87 percent of fibers. Another study examined the impact of installing filters in nearly 100 homes in a small Canadian town and found a significant reduction in microfibers in wastewater, with lint samples from the filters capturing an average of up to 2.7 million microfibers per week.
While some washing machine models in other countries can come with these filters built in, in the United States they more often have to be bought separately and installed, which can be expensive. The Lint LUV-R, for instance, costs $150 for just the filter.
More affordable laundry bags or balls can also reduce microfiber shedding, though research shows performance can vary. A 2020 study of six devices found that the XFiltra filter performed the best, reducing microfiber release by 78 percent. The Guppyfriend laundry bag came in second with a 54 percent reduction in fiber shedding and was followed by the Cora Ball laundry ball at 31 percent.
If you try these devices, dispose of the captured fibers properly by putting them in the garbage. A covered trash can help reduce the amount of fibers that become airborne, Baechler said. Make sure to avoid rinsing anything used to catch fibers off in the sink.
Keep in mind, though, that adopting these tips isn’t going to solve the problem, Sheridan said. But doing “a combination of all those things can only help.”
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