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Plastic pollution in waterways may be coming from your clothes

Sometimes it's easy to think of household appliances as magic boxes that simply do what we want - clean clothes, wash dishes, keep food cold - without any input or waste created. Of course, that's not true, and a washing machine is no exception. It requires energy and water to run, and it creates waste in the form of the dirty water that contains residues of laundry detergent, the dirt from our clothes, even small bits of clothes themselves. 

small plastic fibers collected in a gulf sample in Maine
image: Marine Environmental Research Institute

When these clothes are made from plastics like nylon and polyester, it turns out that the washing process may be contributing to the problem of plastic pollution in our waterways. Washing synthetic clothing emits tiny plastic particles, or microfibers, as the clothes break down during the washing process. Our washing machines and even our wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to take these out of the water, and they end up in natural waterways like rivers and oceans. In many ways, this is similar to the problem of personal care products containing plastic microbeads

Ecologist Mark Browne did a study in 2011 that looked at the plastic accumulating in our oceans. The study, Accumulation of Microplastic on Shorelines Woldwide: Sources and Sinks,  shows a lot of very small pieces of plastic were coming from synthetic clothing. By looking at wastewater from washing machines, the study estimated that a single piece of synthetic clothing can release 1,900 microfibers each time it is washed.

The plastic that ends up in these waterways does not break down chemically, it only becomes smaller and smaller as it breaks into pieces. This is essentially what makes up what we call the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” and other similar groups of plastic garbage that accumulate in the oceans.

How does this affect marine life? Larger pieces of plastic can entangle wildlife, and visible chunks of plastic are often mistaken for food, causing animals to starve because they aren’t actually taking in nutrients. Some plastic is consumed directly by fish, eventually working its way into our food supply. Very tiny pieces of plastic have an effect on the food chain also - they can accumulate and create cloudiness in the waters, so organisms that rely on sunlight to produce food can’t get enough. Threatening the bottom of the food chain in this way can affect every other animal, including humans.

We are always trying to be aware of the environmental impact of cleaning a household and we like to suggest ways to reduce that impact. Of course you know about our work to reduce the number and toxicity of chemicals used to wash your clothes, which also reduces the potential impact of the wastewater. We wanted to pass along this other potential problem in hopes that we can generate some ideas to reduce it. 

good thing this sort of outfit is mostly for Halloween now


So, what can you do to reduce the plastic microfibers that get released into the ocean? 

1. Avoid washing plastic-fiber clothing such as nylon and polyester. Eliminating microbeads in cosmetics and toothpaste seems like a simple switch for these frequently-replaced items, but it may be tougher for durable goods like clothing. Do you think clothing companies should consider this potential environmental impact when designing clothes?

2. Choose natural fibers such as cotton, wool, and hemp when you purchase clothing. The fibers released will break down, unlike synthetic fabric fibers. If you have a mix of materials in your home, make natural fibers the go-to items so the plastic items aren't used and thus aren't washed as frequently. 

3. Share stories and information such as this blog post, this story from The Guardian, and this one from, so this issue starts getting more attention. Can you believe the study was done back in 2011?   

4. Talk to your companies - tell washing machine manufacturers you want a machine with a better filter. Tell clothing companies you're shopping for low-impact items and want them to consider this problem in their designs. Companies listen to their customers and will respond! A campaign called Benign By Design was launched in 2013 and has struggled to gain traction in working with textile manufacturers to reduce the amount of fibers that come out of their clothing through improving the design of the clothes themselves.

What other ideas do you have for reducing plastic pollution? Are you surprised to learn about this source of plastic in our oceans?