Microplastics have become a huge global issue, with 51 trillion pieces of tiny plastic now polluting our oceans. One major source? Washing our clothes — namely, those made out of synthetic materials. 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 behavior 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.
Luckily, there are simple changes we can all make to ensure our laundry isn’t contributing to the microplastics problem. Here are seven easy steps to take today.
Ditch acrylic clothes
Synthetic fibres such as polyester, nylon and acrylic make up around 60 per centof 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.
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.
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 fibers come off the clothes, and then it plateaus into a steady amount each time,” Dr Napper says.
Wash your clothes less
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? That’s music to our ears.
Originally published on Vogue.co.uk