When thinking about plastic, clothing is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. However, as the clothing industry has incorporated more and more synthetic fibres, troublesome microplastic particles have become a common component of the modern wardrobe.
This leaves every eco-conscious consumer with the question of how to avoid microplastics in clothing?
While there is the obvious environmental blow that comes with disposing of clothes to landfill, a problem that is compounded when they have a high plastic percentage, how we wash and care for our clothing is another point of concern. This concern mainly comes down to the fact that many modern clothes shed microplastics.
What are Microplastics
Microplastics, as the name may suggest, are tiny plastic particles. To be classed as microplastic, these particles must be smaller than 5mm.
When it comes to clothing, synthetic garments shed microplastics with every wash. These particles are so small that they can end up travelling through our water pipes and eventually out into the world. It is estimated that our laundry is responsible for a shocking 35% of the microplastics littering our oceans.
Microplastics can also be found in microbeads in cosmetics, paint, tires and even road markings. Or they can be broken down particles from larger plastic items.
The Impacts of Microplastic Pollution
On animals and marine life
Microplastics wreak havoc on the environment. These tiny particles are incredibly harmful to marine life especially as they can absorb and leach dangerous chemicals and toxins.
Making matters worse, as small organisms can mistake microplastics for food, these particles can enter the food chain. Once in the food chain, plastic particles can impact the health of entire ecosystems.
No longer just an issue for our animal friends, microplastics have been found in food for human consumption. The accumulation of microplastics in our diets can cause an array of detrimental health impacts. A study found microplastics in 90% of table salt brands involved in testing. Microplastics have also been found in everything from drinking water to fish to lettuce and apples.
Microplastics are just part of the larger plastic pollution problem. It is estimated that there are a staggering 5 trillion pieces of plastic in our ocean and a truckload’s worth of plastic enters the ocean every minute.
To make a bad situation worse, once microplastics are in the environment they are extremely difficult to remove.
Which Fabrics Shed Microplastics
The list of fabrics that are culprits for shedding microplastics is extensive. The prevalence of these materials in the fashion sector does complicate how we can avoid microplastics in our clothing.
Synthetic clothes are the main microplastic shedders. Common synthetic textiles that make up the bulk of the fashion sector’s commonly used fabrics include:
- Fleece and microfleece
Unfortunately, these fabrics are also some of the most widely used in the fashion sector. Synthetic fibres account for close to 62% of fibres produced. With every wash estimated to release between 700,000 and 12 million microfibres, our love of synthetic fibres is starting to have a steep environmental toll.
In some regions, synthetic clothing is listed as a major source of microplastic pollution. One such area is the Arctic. One study found that synthetic fibres are responsible for 92% of microplastic pollution across the Arctic region. Laundry is thought to be a contributor to this pollution with microplastics riding the ocean currents to Arctic regions.
Disturbingly, this means that plastic particles from your weekly clothes wash could wind up contributing to plastic pollution in fragile Arctic ecosystems.
How to Avoid Microplastics in Clothing Being Shed in the Wash
While it may seem an impossible task to completely rid our wardrobes of microplastics, there are positive steps that we can all take to dramatically limit the microplastic pollution of our clothing.
1. Limit Laundry Loads
Microplastics are shed with every laundry cycle. The fewer laundry cycles, the fewer microplastics our clothes shed. Limiting your laundry cycles can help to lower your carbon footprint and save you time doing laundry too! Just one fewer wash can save those 700,000 microplastics being shed.
2. Wash Mindfully
It isn’t simply the amount of laundry we do, but how we do our laundry that can impact the levels of microplastic shedding in our washing.
- Full loads
Washing full loads doesn’t just mean fewer washes, but also less water and less friction. Reducing the amount of water and friction in a washing cycle helps to reduce the microplastics that are shed per load.
- Cooler and shorter cycles
Hot, long washing cycles dramatically increase the amount of microplastic shedding compared to short, cold cycles. One study found that in Europe if every household switched to a 30 minute, 15°C washing cycle, microplastic shedding from laundry could be reduced by 3,800 tonnes annually.
- Liquid instead of powder
The more friction in a washing cycle, the more microplastic fibres are shed. One way to reduce friction in your washing machine is to use liquid washing detergent instead of powder.
Switching to a liquid washing detergent can help to reduce microplastic shedding. Innovations such as washing strips that dissolve into a liquid without requiring bulky plastic bottles for storage are even better.
3. Choose Natural Fibres
Synthetics may be a popular fabric in the modern fashion world, but they aren’t the only option. Opting for natural fibres that don’t shed harmful microplastics is a sure way to reduce your microplastic pollution footprint.
However, while fabrics like cotton and wool are better on the plastic pollution front, it is important to be mindful of other environmental impacts these fabrics can create during the production phase. If opting for more natural fibres, ensure they come from ethical and sustainable sources.
4. Buy Second-hand
While buying second-hand clothes isn’t a way to completely avoid microplastics in clothing, it does help. Studies have found that the levels of microplastics that clothes shed in the laundry plateaus over time. This means that buying second-hand clothes, even synthetic ones, avoids releasing the increased levels of microplastics that would be shed from a new item. See our article on buying preloved clothes online here.
5. Use a Guppyfriend bag
The Guppyfriend Bag, commonly referred to simply as the Guppy Bag, is a laundry bag designed to catch and trap microfibres produced in a clothes wash. They are also shown to reduce the number of fibres that break off by 79-86% meaning that clothes last for longer too. The bags are designed to have synthetic clothing placed inside them and then washed in the bag in the machine as normal.
The bags are reusable and while not a perfect solution, they do trap from 90-100% of the microfibres shed throughout a laundry cycle.
6. try a Cora Ball
The Cora Ball is another innovation for trapping microplastic particles in the washing machine. Inspired by the design of coral, this clever invention helps to prevent microplastic fibres from breaking off clothes, limiting the microfibre shedding that occurs per laundry load.
The ball is also designed to catch any fibres that do break; their studies showed that this reduced microplastic particles released into the environment by 26-31%.
Cora Ball vs Guppyfriend Bag
Both the Cora Ball and the Guppyfriend bag offer a level of protection against microplastic pollution. As the Cora Ball is not recommended for use with lace or loose-knit clothing, some people prefer the Guppyfriend, which also traps more fibres.
However, it is true that chucking the Cora Ball in the wash is quicker than separating your synthetic clothes and loading them into a bag. It ultimately comes down to personal preference.
Using either solution or using both devices in conjunction with each other, offers a step towards a less polluting laundry cycle.
7. install a Washing Machine Filter
Most washing machines aren’t fitted with a filter sufficient for catching microplastics. A way to make your laundry load more environmentally friendly is to install a washing machine filter. There are various brands available that sell microplastic washing machine filters and many can be added to a standard washing machine.
These filters dramatically reduce the number of plastic particles that pass into the environment from laundry machines.
Some countries are already bringing in requirements for new machines to be fitted with filters to tackle microplastic pollution. France has been the first to do so with mandatory filters required on all washing machines by 2025.
8. Line-Dry clothing
Tumble-drying clothing, while convenient, comes with a few environmental setbacks. The tumble-drying process increases microplastic shedding and can damage fibres which can potentially lead to more shedding in the next wash.
Line drying clothing also helps to save energy and lower your carbon footprint.
Solving the Plastic Problem
Plastic pollution poses a major threat to ecosystems around the world. Microplastics further complicate the issue of plastic pollution and are an environmental catastrophe that the fashion sector directly impacts.
Avoiding microplastics in clothing is a complex and multifaceted issue. Luckily, this isn’t an unsolvable problem. There are ways that we can all help to reduce microplastic pollution and create a cleaner tomorrow for us all.
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