Zero Waste Laundry: Preventing Microfibres From Flowing Any Further

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Microfibres make up a massive amount of ocean microplastics. What can we do on an individual level to reduce the amount of microfibres our clothes shed?

A huge problem with synthetic clothing such as polyester, rayon, and acrylics that has recently come to light is the fact that it sheds microplastics, which are released into the water that is washed away down the drain when being washed. Therefore, every time we wash clothes made from synthetic fabric, which is made from a type of plastic, microfibres are released into our waterways.

What are microfibres? They are just really tiny bits of the plastic used to make synthetic clothing and they make up 34.8% of microplastics in the ocean according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Primary Microplastics in the Oceans: a Global Evaluation of Sources report. That’s a crazy amount!

George Leonard, chief scientist for The Ocean Conservancy, estimates that there are 1.4 million trillion microfibres in the ocean. They are thought to be the single largest contributor to watershed plastic pollution in developed countries.

The Story of Stuff Project’s YouTube video on microfibres explains that they end up in rivers, lakes and the ocean because they are too small for water treatment plants to capture. And, when in the ocean they soak up other pollutants in the water, like pesticides, motor oil, and industrial chemicals and then end up inside fish, potentially causing gut impaction, hormone disruption, and liver damage.

This study discusses how ingested plastic transfers hazardous chemicals to fish and induces hepatic stress. It shows that “fish exposed to a mixture of polyethylene with chemical pollutants sorbed from the marine environment, bioaccumulate these chemical pollutants and suffer liver toxicity and pathology”.

These fish can then potentially come back into your home and life inside the fish you’re eating if you eat fish. The effect these microfibres have on humans is currently unknown.

If you want to read more research on microfibres, go here.

So, what can we do on a personal level to reduce the amount of microfibres our clothes shed?

How to reduce the amount of the microfibres your clothes release

There are a number of ways in which you can reduce the amount of microfibres your clothing releases:

1. Wash your clothes less often

Only washing your clothes when you actually need to wash them reduces the amount of times they are washed, thereby reducing the amount of microfibres released. Most of the time, you do not need to wash your clothing after every wear.

Don’t automatically throw your clothing into the wash basket every time you take it off - first think about whether you could get another wear out of it before it needs to be cleaned.

2. Capture these microfibres when washing by machine

There are various devices available that you place in your machine to capture these microfibres. They have been specifically designed to stop microfibre pollution, with the most popular being the Cora Ball and the Guppyfriend washing bag.

According to a test program by the Fraunhofer Institute UMSICHT, the Guppyfriend washing Bag “reliably retains microfibers” and “protects textiles”, with “86% fewer fibers shed from synthetic textiles compared to washing without the Guppyfriend washing bag”.

The Guppyfriend is not made of recycled material as “recycled material doesn’t work for this kind of high-tech mesh”, according to makers, but the washing bag is designed in such a way that it can easily be recycled.

According to Rozalia Project, which developed the Cora Ball, which is made from 100% recycled and 100% recyclable soft and stretchy plastic, “early test results indicate that if 10% of US households used a Cora Ball, we could keep the plastic equivalent of over 30 million water bottles out of our oceans, lakes and rivers every year”.

But, could the Cora Ball actually cause fabric to shed more and wear out faster? According to the makers, no because they have three design strategies to keep it from making more microfibres themselves, namely its shape, the material it is made from, and motion - it moves with the clothes, not against them.

It does warn that lace, crocheted/chunky knits, tassels or items with fraying ends do have potential to get past the rings and stuck in the stalks, so it suggests putting them in a wide mesh bag for delicates.

A research paper titled Capturing microfibers - marketed technologies reduce microfiber emissions from washing machines tested whether the Cora Ball and the Lint LUV-R filter actually reduced microfibre emissions. It found that “both technologies significantly reduced the numbers of microfibers from fleece blankets in washing effluent” and that “the Lint LUV-R captured an average of 87% of microfibers in the wash by count, compared to the Cora Ball which captured 26% by count”.

The Lint LUV-R Washing Machine Discharge Filter is a Canadian invention that is added on to your washing machine to remove lint and microplastics from washing machine discharge.

There is little other data on the effectiveness of these devices, with more research needed, however, the research mentioned above suggests that the Guppyfriend is a better choice than the Cora Ball.

Some people suggest placing a stocking over your washing machine’s hose to capture microfibres, but this can damage the machine’s pump and block your pipe so be very careful if following this approach. Also, microfibres are so small they could possibly just pass through it. We wouldn’t recommend it.

Any microfibres caught need to be sent to landfill.

3. Don’t use a dryer

Hanging your clothes to dry not only saves electricity, it also means less microfibres are released as tumble dryers shake lots of fibres loose.

4. Buy clothing made from natural fabrics

Clothing that is made from natural materials like cotton, hemp, bamboo and wool won’t shed microplastic as it is not made from plastic. Start phasing out the synthetic clothing you own by only buying clothing made from natural fibres if possible, including clothing bought at second hand stores.

Other solutions

It is also suggested that washing by hand or doing a full load may minimise the amount of fibres released and that second hand clothing has less microfibres left to shed. However, we have also heard that the older our clothing gets the worse the shedding problem can become.

Are you aware of any other ways microfibres can be contained?

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