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Microplastics and Laundry

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

Washing our clothes is responsible for more than a third of the microplastics that end up in the sea, seriously harming marine life. Here are some simple eco-friendly steps that you can follow to help save our oceans.

Microplastics have become a huge global issue, with 51 trillion pieces of tiny plastic now polluting our oceans. One major source? Washing our clothes. In fact, experts say between 700,000 and 12 million microfibres can be shed during one single load of laundry. It’s estimated that laundry is responsible for 35 per cent of microplastics in our oceans, seriously harming marine life. 

“It’s turning our oceans into a big plastic soup,” Dr Imogen Napper, a marine scientist at the University of Plymouth, tells Vogue. “Research shows microplastics can be ingested by marine life, and once ingested, they might affect the animal itself in terms of behaviour or biological processes.”

And it’s not just our oceans that are being affected by microplastics - they’ve also started to enter our food chain via the wastewater and soil we use to grow crops, as well as polluting the air we breathe. 

The good news is that there are simple changes we can all make to ensure our laundry isn’t contributing to the microplastics problem. In order of importance, here are seven easy steps to take today.

Ditch synthetic clothes

If you never buy or wear synthetic fibres you can switch off, relax and read something else - but, beware, you probably still do (see para 2 below). Synthetic fibres are the culprit and, apparently, synthetic fibres such as polyester, nylon and acrylic make up around 60 per cent of our wardrobes - meaning avoiding these fabrics is one of the easiest switches you can make. This includes polyester-cotton blends, although initial research suggests these may shed fewer microplastics than fully synthetic materials. “We found the acrylic released seven times the amount as the polycotton blend,” says Dr Napper.  

Get a microplastics filter

For certain items, including underwear and activewear, it’s near-impossible to avoid synthetic materials (in these cases, recycled plastic can be a more eco-friendly option). Handily though, there are products out there that collect microplastics released from your garments, such as the Guppyfriend - a washing bag you put your synthetic items in - and the Cora Ball - a laundry ball that collects microfibres. There are also filters you can actually plug into your washing machine itself, stopping microplastics from entering our waterways. 

Wash your clothes less

Apart from avoiding synthetic fibres completely, washing our clothes less frequently is perhaps the simplest way to help tackle the microplastics problem. It also reduces CO2 emissions and means our clothes will last longer, too. “Only wash your clothes when you need to,” Dr Napper advises. An excuse to get out of doing laundry while helping the environment as well will be music to most people's ears. 

Shop secondhand

Washing new clothes also releases more microfibres than those you already own, with research showing that more microfibres are shed in the first eight washes. That means extending the lifespan of the garments you already own or buying more secondhand items are positive changes you can make. “We’ve found that for the first few washes, more fibres come off the clothes, and then it plateaus into a steady amount each time,” Dr Napper says. 

Pick cooler, faster cycles

Opting for a cooler and faster cycle on your washing machine could also lead to fewer microplastics being shed from our clothes. A recent study found washing clothes at 15C for 30 minutes led to a 30 per cent reduction in the number of microfibres released, compared to a typical 85-minute cycle at 40C. Researchers say that if every household in Europe did this, it could potentially save more than 3,800 tonnes of microplastics from being released a year. 

Aim for full loads

We all know that washing a full load is naturally more eco-friendly, as it saves both water and energy. But it can also lead to fewer microplastics being released into the environment, as it creates less friction between the clothes, as well as reducing the ratio of water to fabric. “Research has found using less water helps reduce the number of fibres released,” Dr Napper explains. 

Avoid the delicates cycle

In a similar vein, avoiding the delicate wash cycle - a more gentle setting used for knitwear and lingerie - can also reduce the number of microplastics produced. A 2019 study found the delicate setting, which uses twice as much water than typical cycles, releases on average 800,000 more microfibres per wash. 

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