A new study at Northumbria University, funded by Procter & Gamble, found that washing machines release thousands of microfibers into rivers, the sea, and the ocean each year in Europe alone. That is equivalent to two garbage trucks every day. Another conclusion of the study was that most of the microfibers released came from natural sources: cotton, wool, and viscose.
The Plastic Soup Foundation has focused on the problem of microfiber pollution from synthetic clothes for many years, as the dissemination partner of the EU-funded project Mermaids Life+. The results of that project, available in a research paper published in Environmental Pollution in 2017, showed that an average of 9 million microfibers are released in every 6kg wash.
While the focus of the Mermaids Life+ research focused on synthetic fibers, Northumbria University examined the percentage of natural vs. synthetic fibers released. However, it is essential to acknowledge that plastic microfibers are still present in the environment and have been found at the deepest point of the ocean – the Mariana Trench – as well as the Himalayas. Plastic fibers are falling from the sky, traveling for kilometers until they settle down on the ground. They have also been found in food, drinks, and we are even breathing them in.
Microfiber pollution must be addressed from a holistic approach: the leakage of fibers should be stopped at all stages of clothing’s life, from making yarn and fabric to disposing them at their end-of-life.
Solutions to microfiber pollution
Northumbria University’s study suggests several tips for consumers to reduce microfiber release from the laundry. Microfibers released decreased 30% when using a 30-minute wash cycle at 15º, compared to an 85-minute cycle at 40º. The researchers estimate that consumers could save more than 3,000 tons of microfibers being released if changing their washing habits.
The Plastic Soup Foundation came to this conclusion in 2017 based on Mermaids Life+ research: different washing habits could reduce microfiber release from synthetic clothes. While these are undoubtedly quick wins, consumers should not solely carry the responsibility for the pollution that their clothes are creating.
Researchers at Northumbria University also noted that new clothes release more microfibers than older ones. For this reason, the Plastic Soup Foundation advises textile manufacturers and clothing retails to pre-wash their garments before bringing them out in the market. Research has shown that during the first five washes, a significant amount of fibers are released. By taking this extra step, we could significantly prevent microfiber pollution.
Another suggestion mentioned in the study was introducing filtering systems into the designs of washing machines to reduce fiber shedding.
There is enough research to implement solutions, and they should be carried out throughout the entire life span of a clothing garment for the most significant performance. It is the only way to bring microfiber pollution to a minimum.
The Plastic Soup Foundation’s campaign to stop microfiber release, Ocean Clean Wash, provides solutions to consumers and companies to approach this issue. Only a comprehensive approach with shared responsibility can solve this problem.
Doubtful results from research funded by Procter & Gamble
One of the results of this study at Northumbria University is particularly surprising: detergent use has no significant impact on microfiber release, which contradicts all previous research in this subject, where detergent increased microfiber release.
It is essential to keep in mind that detergents not only may increase microfiber release, they also contain microplastics in their products. An Austrian environmental organization, Global 2000, along with consumer protection organization AK OÖ, tested more than 300 detergents for microplastics. Out of all the detergents tested, 119 contained microplastics. Among those, some of them were from brands sold by the producer Procter & Gamble.
The research findings by Northumbria University aim to educate consumers on ways to reduce their environmental impact when doing the laundry. However, we believe that industry – also the fabric care industry – should eliminate unnecessary plastic ingredients in their products. Microplastics, from textiles and detergents, only add to the pollution in our oceans that will never be able to be retrieved.
Fortunately, there are several detergents available in the market that do not contain microplastics. The guidelines for a sustainable laundry available on our website, as well as the Beat the Microbead app to check if cosmetic products contain microplastic, are great tools for consumers that want to do their bit in the fight against plastic pollution.