Laundry and Microplastics Have More in Common Than You Think

By Haley Vogel

Laundry and microplastics don’t seem to have much in common, and yet research is finding that our dirty clothes are polluting our oceans more than ever before.

Photo by  Erik Witsoe

Photo by Erik Witsoe

It may come as a surprise to you that most of the microplastics found in the ocean are not from broken down straws, plastic water bottles or plastic bags but are in fact from our clothing.

Now, more than ever before, our clothing is being manufactured from synthetic materials such as Lycra, Nylon, Acrylic, and Polyester, which are most commonly found in swimwear, sportswear and cheap fast fashion clothing.

What Happens?

When we wash our clothes, all the tiny fibres that make up our fashion become agitated by friction against each other, the type of detergent we use and the temperature it is washed at. This agitation causes shedding, where tiny microfibres break off and are then washed down the drain. These fibres are usually less than 1mm and up to one-thousandth of a millimeter in size.

Because of their tiny size, they are too small for most filters to catch and therefore eventually end up being dumped in the ocean.

Photo by  Dustan Woodhouse

Estimated Damage

  • Each load of washing has been estimated to create up to 700,000 particles of microplastic

  • Australia has been estimated to be dumping approximately 62 kilograms of microplastic into the ocean every week, this is the same amount as 7,750 plastic bags

  • Globally it is estimated that 44 million plastic bags worth of microplastic is entering our oceans every year through our washing machines

  • Microfibres have been found in oysters and muscles and have now re-entered our food chain.

  • The IUCN estimates that 35% of microplastic pollution comes from washing synthetic fibres

  • Studies have found that 30% of Mullet and 13% of Bream have microplastic in their stomach

  • It is estimated that one third of our food is contaminated with microplastics

Acrylic has been found to be the worst pollutant with 728,789 fibres per 6kg wash

Polyester is the next biggest offender at 496,030 fibres per 6kg wash

What can we do?

Whilst it’s impossible to avoid washing our clothes altogether, there are some strategies we can put in place to help reduce our contribution to the microplastic problem.

Image by @rainbow_tides

Image by @rainbow_tides

  1. Change the way you wash: using a liquid detergent instead of laundry powder can lessen the agitation caused whilst washing, putting your cycle on a colder setting and filling your machine up more can also help reduce agitation and friction within your wash cycle.

  2. Change the way you buy: As a consumer you have a powerful voice, don’t be tempted by cheap and flimsy fast fashion which is usually made out of cheap flimsy materials that degrade quickly. Save up and buy better quality clothing and try to avoid synthetic materials as much as possible. Clothing made from cotton, linen and wool are all great options.

  3. Wash less frequently: In our first world society we have gone a bit overboard with the cleanliness regimes, studies have shown that we are washing our clothes much more frequently than we need to, in particular things like jeans which can go more than 20 wears without ‘needing’ to be washed. If your clothes are not smelly, and there is no visible dirt (food stains, sweat marks, dirt) then try to wear it once or twice more before washing. This will save you water, electricity and reduce the amount of microplastics coming out of your washing machine.

  4. Buy a microplastic filter for your washing machine: There are numerous types of these being developed at different price ranges, the Guppy Friend is one that is being developed for a decent price. You can also get these Cora Balls which catch microfibres as well.

  5. Recycle: Buy swimwear and activewear that is made from recycled polyester from ocean trash, there’s a great article on our blog with some fantastic sustainable swimwear options. Be thoughtful when you dispose of your clothing, try to find a way to recycle or reuse the items or find a place like H&M which will take old clothing and recycle it for you.