Brisbane, Australia: Ecologist Mark Browne from the School of Biology and Environmental Sciences at the University College Dublin pioneered microplastics research when he found tiny, synthetic fibres on beach shorelines. His 2011 study revealed that 85 percent of the microfibres discovered were human-made materials commonly used in clothing; fibres such as polyester, nylon and acrylic.
After testing wastewater from domestic washing machines, he found that a single synthetic garment could release 1,900 individual microfibres which may eventually make its way into our oceans.
Since wastewater treatment plants fail to remove all microplastics due to their tiny size and shapes and many of us have wardrobes filled with clothes made of synthetic fabrics, it begs the question: What exactly can we do about this problem?
To help answer this question, I email Claire O’Loughlin whom I met at last year’s Eco Fashion Week Australia event. She teaches Biology at the University of Notre Dame in Fremantle and is also the founder of Ocean Remedy, an eco-friendly beachwear brand. O’Loughlin initiated a pilot study into the microfibre issue and published a 64-page comprehensive report entitled ‘Fashion and Microplastic Pollution: Investigating Microplastics From Laundry’.
In her report, O’Loughlin conservatively calculates that Australia, which operates less than one percent of all washing machines globally, may be depositing approximately 62 kilograms of microplastic into our oceans every week, equivalent to 7,750 plastic grocery bags. Globally, a staggering 44 million plastic grocery bags or more may be entering our oceans each year through our washing machines.
Teamed with warming and acidifying oceans, teamed with rampant fishing, teamed with eutrophication from farming, it’s a perfect storm.” – Claire O’Loughlin via email, 2018
“I believe others may be looking at the problem wishing we could just get rid of synthetic fibre, alas that’s not going to happen,” the educator admits. She’s right about that. According to Textile World, polyester demand was only 5.2 million tonnes globally in 1980 and by 2014, demand reached 46.1 million tonnes. It’s expected to increase too. The Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group’s 2017 report “Pulse of the Fashion Industry” even recommended the industry increase the amount of polyester by 92 percent by 2030 – to 76 million tonnes – as part of a “sustainable materials mix”, completely dismissing the serious issue of microfibre pollution.
Since wastewater treatment plants capture only up to 90 percent of microfibres (a best-case scenario according to O’Loughlin) and preventing manufacturing of synthetic fibre is implausible, what else can be done to minimise the risk of microplastic pollution?
Her interim solution is simple: use a laundry bag.
“There are very high ranked professionals in environmental science circles that don’t believe in laundry bags as a good option. I would argue well and truly they are.” O’Loughlin explains that there are multiple benefits to this solution, mainly:
- laundry bags are available for purchase in the market and can be implemented and used right away,
- could be required of brands (for example, in the USA they are legislating for warnings on polyester clothing), and
- it brings awareness to the general consumer and forces them to think about what they launder, what they purchase etc.
These bags should also be used for ‘sustainable fabrics’ such as ECONYL and recycled PET bottles as these fabrics are still derived from plastic. If your sustainable fashion action of choice is buying second hand and purchase lots of items made of polyester, nylon, Lycra and acrylic or blended fabrics like cotton/polyester or cotton/Lycra, this equally applies.
So what type of laundry bag does she recommend?
“The bags I advocate at this point are monofilament, so they last 6-10 times as long as regular textiles.” To illustrate, if regular nylon lasts 100 years, monofilament should last a minimum of 600 years. O’Loughlin explains that these are not blends and are ‘technical fabrics’ designed to filter.
“Obviously, the worry is that a bag in the laundry will also be yielding fibres. That’s where the monofilament is so important, they yield far, far less. It’s like weaving a very fine mesh from fishing line, as opposed to yarn. The pilot study I conducted shows a saving of 87-91 percent microfibres in the laundry water when using the bags, which includes anything coming off the bags.”
Related Post: Plastic Fibres Are Found in 83% of the World’s Tap Water
Her next step is to take this study out to at least 50 washes (to replicate a weekly annual wash) and observe fibre blends, and make comparisons between a monofilament bag and a regular laundry bag. She will then look at the sizes of the fibres remaining in the wash, to see if she can find any patterns or differences.
“It’s a very big job, but someone has to do it,” she explains. “Whilst I’m at it, I’m going to try to see exactly what microfibres are resting in sediments in the vicinity of our wastewater treatment deposits and exactly what is going into the treatment plant, and coming out. So this is about three PhD’s worth, but you know, it has to be done.”
In response to this environmental issue, a German company called Guppyfriend has developed laundry washing bags which it claims captures 99 percent of the fibres and is exclusively stocked at Patagonia as well. Last year, after a successfully-funded Kickstarter campaign, the Rozalia Project’s Cora Ball microfibre catching laundry ball went into production and is now available for purchase.
These laundry bags and balls are of course short-term solutions until others are found (or created). But the best overall long-term solution? Avoid buying synthetic clothing and textiles and reach for those made from natural fibres instead.
Want to reduce the amount of plastic you consume? This post will guide you to living a life with less plastic.
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