How can washing your clothes contribute towards polluting the environment in fact our waterways? Many clothes are made of plastic – namely polyester, nylon and acrylic or a mixture of cotton and plastic. When you wash clothes made from polyester, acrylic or polyester-cotton fabric, it is estimated that over 700,000 fibres could be released from an average 6kg wash load.
It is estimated that 60% of the material that makes up our clothes worldwide is from synthetic plastic fibres, these are both cheap and versatile by allowing for stretch and breathability, providing warmth in winter clothes like fleece jackets. These tiny plastic fibres are washed down the drain unfortunately, wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove them, as the fibres are often too small to be filtered out.
The fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world, after oil. 85% of the human-made material found in the ocean are materials, such as nylon and acrylic, used in clothing.
Are you eating and drinking microplastic? The average person ingests over 5,800 particles of synthetic debris a year, according to a 2018 research article – most of those particles are plastic fibres.
Fibres have been reported in effluent from sewage treatment plants, data indicates fibres released by the washing of clothing could be an important source of microplastics to our waterways and oceans. In a 2004 study – Microplastic was reported to be in a wide range of aquatic habitats including some of the most remote environments on earth:
- Surface waters
- The water column
- Subtidal sediments
- The deep sea and
- The Arctic
- 1kg of clothes causes 25kg of CO2
- One synthetic clothing garment can release more than 1,900 fibres of microplastics during one wash
- Microplastics concentrate on persistent organic pollutants that can be ingested by marine biota, introducing toxic pollutants to the food chain.
Globally, marine organisms interact with microplastics in a number of ways:
- Microplastics can adhere to the body (i.e. attached to external appendages; and/or be absorbed (i.e. taken up by the organisms into the body through cell membranes).
- The absorption of microplastics has been demonstrated in phytoplankton.
- Microplastics can be taken up across the gills through ventilation, which has been demonstrated in crabs.
- Organisms can ingest microplastics directly or indirectly. Direct ingestion has been demonstrated in over a hundred marine species. Organisms can ingest microplastics as food, unintentionally capturing it while feeding or intentionally choosing it and/or mistaking it for prey. Organisms may also indirectly ingest plastic while ingesting prey containing microplastic, i.e. trophic transfer.
- A 2018 study found around 73% of fish caught at mid-ocean depths in the Northwest Atlantic had microplastic in their stomachs.
Sustainable Living Choices
AVOID – The major culprits
- Acrylic – Scarf sheds 300,000 fibres per wash
- Nylon – Socks shed 136,000 fibres per wash
- Polyester – One polyester fleece jacket sheds almost a million fibres per wash.
LOOK FOR – More Sustainable Fabric Choices
Linen is made from flax – Is one of the best fabrics available, It is strong, breezy, anti-bacterial, and gentle to your skin and the planet. Linen uses basically no water and emits ¼ of the carbon as cotton per pound of fibre.
Cotton – go organic – Conventional cotton crops are the dirtiest crops in the world: they use 11% of the world’s pesticides, and 24% of the world’s insecticides, but only use 2.4% of the world’s land. Organic cotton doesn’t allow the use of genetically modified seeds and restricts the use of many chemicals— making it safe for the environment, the farmers and you! It still uses water and land but it helps sustain the land it is grown on through crop rotations and natural ways of controlling pesticides.
Recycled Polyester – PET used to make plastic bottles is the same material as polyester, PET bottles can be processed by which plastic bottles are made into flakes and workable fibres for clothing.
Recycled Cotton and viscose – Re:newcell is a Swedish Company that opened its first plant in 2017 incorporating recycling technology that dissolves used cotton and other natural fibres into a new, biodegradable raw material known as re:newcell pulp. This pulp can be turned into textile fibre.
Bamboo and Hemp – Production only has minimal impact on our environment, it requires less water for growth – In most areas, the rain is more than enough for optimal growth. Requires no pesticides or herbicides – these are poisons that can get into, and block, our waterways. Grows extremely fast and doesn’t need as much land – both are two of the most efficient plants in terms of production per square meter and growth speed. This means that fewer of our forests need to be cleared.
WHAT CAN YOU DO – With small changes in your washing habits, you can reduce the number of fibres your washing machine shed:
- Fill up your washing machine to the max: washing full load results in less friction between the clothes and, therefore, fewer fibres are released.
- Use washing liquid instead of powder: the ‘scrub’ function of the grains of the powder results in loosening the fibres of clothes more than with liquid.
- Use a fabric softener: some ingredients in fabric softeners reduce friction between fibres so the release decreases.
- Wash at a low temperature: when clothes are washed at a high temperature some fabrics are damaged, leading to the release of fibres.
- Avoid long washings: long periods of washing cause more friction between fabrics, which supposes more tearing of the fibres.
- Dry spin clothes at low revs: higher revolutions increase the friction between the clothes, resulting in higher chances of fibres loosening.
- Avoid buying synthetic clothes and look for wool, cotton, linen, silk, cashmere, bamboo or other natural fabrics.
Until next time, be human, be kind, be you
Much love Gabrielle
REFERENCES: Release of synthetic microplastic plastic fibres from domestic washing machines: Effects of fabric type and washing conditions. Imogen E. Napper, Richard C. Thompson.
Frequency of Microplastics in Mesopelagic Fishes from the Northwest Atlantic
Anthropogenic contamination of tap water, beer, and sea salt https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0194970
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