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How to Reduce Microfiber Emissions

Small changes in washing habits can lead to huge reductions in microfiber emissions

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Hannah De Frond is a researcher in the Rochman lab at the University of Toronto, studying plastic pollution. Originally from the UK, Hannah graduated from the University of Leeds with a B.S. degree in Environmental Science and from the University of York with an M.S. in Marine Environmental Management. Her research currently focuses on developing standardized laboratory methods for the analysis of microplastics, in partnership with the Southern California Coastal Waster Research Project (SCCWRP).

Every time you wash your clothes, thousands of tiny microfibers shed from the fabric into wastewaters. As 60% of all clothing is now produced from synthetic fibers (such as polyester and nylon), many of these microfibers are microplastics. Because of their small size, microfibers often pass through wastewater treatment systems, flowing into our waterways and oceans, where they can be ingested by wildlife.

A new study from researchers at Northumbria University and Procter & Gamble estimates that European countries alone release almost 13,000 tons of microfibers to marine environments every year. This is equal to the mass of dumping two garbage trucks worth of waste every day.

However, the study also found that by simply switching from a standard 85-minute 40˚C (104°F) wash cycle, to a cooler and shorter 30-minute 15˚C (59°F) cycle, the release of microfibers reduced by 30%!

Other changes that also reduce microfiber emissions include larger washing loads, and switching from traditional top-loading washers to high efficiency front-loading washers. In the study, high efficiency washers not only reduced microfiber release by 70% for polyester fleece fabrics and by 37% for polyester T-shirts, but also used 50% less energy and water per load. They also found that new clothes release more microfibers than old clothes—a further reason to avoid fast fashion.

On a global scale, researchers from the Institute of Textile Research (INTEXTER) at the University of Catalonia estimate that more than 250,000 tons of microfibers are released from household washers to the environment every year, based on data from washing machine use, microfiber release and wastewater production.

Using hypothetical scenarios, they estimated that by using quicker laundry programs and more efficient washers, global microfiber emissions could be reduced by approximately 29%, or more than 80,000 tons per year. What’s more, with a combination of changing consumer habits and increased wastewater treatment, we could reduce global microfiber emissions by a huge 65%.

Other immediate solutions to reduce microfiber emissions include the use of commercially available capture devices for household washers. Examples include filters such as the Lint LUV-R which can be fitted to washing machines, and the Cora Ball which can be tossed in the washer with your clothing. When comparing these two devices, researchers at the University of Toronto and Ocean Conservancy found the Lint LUV-R filter captured an average of 87% of microfibers per by count, compared to the Cora Ball which captured 26%.

Together, these studies have proven that even slight adjustments to our daily habits can have a huge and immediate impact on microfiber shedding and release to the environment. Adopting just one of these small changes is an easy win in the fight against microplastic pollution.

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