One of our volunteers, Millie, joined us in second year of her environmental studies degree and really got stuck in talking to the public about food waste for our Zero Waste Leith project. In her fourth year Millie researched the release of plastic microfibres in washing machines for her dissertation and now works as a researcher for Marine Scotland. Here, Millie shares what she found during her research and her top tips to avoid microfibre pollution from your washing machine at home.
The devasting effects of microplastics in the marine environment are becoming increasingly clear, as they are being ingested by fish and harbouring pollution; but where are these microplastics coming from? According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), one third of microplastic pollution in our oceans comes from washing synthetic textiles, and 60 per cent of all the clothing in our wardrobes are made of synthetic materials like polyester. Washing machines cause the fabric to shed tiny strands of material, called plastic microfibres.
We don’t really know exactly how many microfibres are released during an average laundry wash and if changing the water temperature or detergent affects this – so I decided to focus my dissertation on finding this out.
In the lab I put each material in a washing machine with non-biological and biological detergent, and tested them at hot and cold temperatures, before filtering the wastewater to count how many fibres were produced. According to my research approximately 299 to 632 tonnes of microfibres (equivalent to the weight of three to six blue whales) are being released from UK washing machines annually, depending on the size of the machine and how frequently washes are done.
Washing clothes in non-bio detergent and at cooler temperatures (30⁰C) is the best solution currently as this uses gentler chemicals and doesn’t damage the clothes as much, resulting in less microfibres being shed from clothing. There are also several other solutions to reduce microfibre shedding, which I’ve highlighted below, but ultimately we also need the washing machine manufacturers to include a filter which captures the fibres at source!
Millie’s top tips for minimising microfibres:
- Put synthetic clothes into a mesh bag in your washing machine to capture the microfibres that are shed during the wash
- Use a device that can catch up to a third the microfibres in your washing machine
- Fit a filter onto the outlet pipe of your washing machine to maximise the amount of fibres which can be removed
- Choose garments made of natural fibres such as organic cotton, linen and wool
- Check where your clothes are coming from: what is the manufacturer doing to reduce microfibre shedding?
- For more tips visit What’s In My Wash
Changeworks is lucky to have a team of more than fifty volunteers who help us with our projects encouraging people to tackle waste and do more recycling. They gave 948 hours of their time in 2019 and 75 per cent of our volunteers say they gain new skills from volunteering with us which often helps on their career journey. Are you inspired by Millie’s story and interested in joining the Changeworks volunteer team? Find out more and apply today!