Photos by: Rishad Daroowala & Jimmy Martinello
How your laundry is contributing to microfiber pollution in the ocean
New report from Ocean Wise estimates that 878 tonnes of microfibers, the equivalent weight of 10 blue whales, are released from Canadian and U.S. household laundry through wastewater treatment plants every year.
Vancouver, B.C. – A new Ocean Wise Plastics Lab report suggests that fighting ocean pollution might start with your choice of fashion and how you do your laundry at home.
With microfiber pollution now understood to be an emerging threat to ocean health, the Ocean Wise Plastics Lab in Vancouver, Canada, investigated sources. Authors Katerina Vassilenko, Mathew Watkins, Stephen Chastain, Anna Posacka and Peter Ross note that one of the key sources of microfiber pollution appears to be the shedding that textiles do in home laundry.
The report, entitled Me, My Clothes and the Ocean: The role of textiles in microfiber pollution, was produced with the support of four apparel retailers – MEC, Patagonia, REI and Arc’teryx – and MetroVancouver and Environment & Climate Change Canada.
The most comprehensive study to date
With limited research on the propensity of textiles to shed during laundry, the researchers’ goal was to add to our current understanding by generating a wider dataset on the microfiber footprint of different fabrics. Over a two-year period, the Plastics Lab evaluated the shedding properties of 37 textile samples constructed with polyester, nylon, and natural and mixed fibers. The Plastics Lab team used a custom-designed washing machine test facility and a dedicated high-resolution analytical laboratory, both in Vancouver.
One of the key findings of this research was the wide range in the degree to which different textiles shed in a single wash, reflecting variations in material, construction, mechanical treatment and chemical treatment of each item. Another finding was that mechanically-treated polyester fleeces and jerseys shed the most. However, cotton and wool textiles are released large amounts of microfibers. Lightweight and durable nylon textiles shed the least.
In this study, the researchers estimate that the average household in Canada and the U.S. releases 533 million microfibers – or 135 g – from laundry into the wastewater treatment system every year. Following wastewater treatment, that adds up to a collective release by households in both countries of 3.5 quadrillion (3.5 x 1015) microfibers – or 878 tonnes – to the aquatic environment (freshwater and ocean). That’s the equivalent weight of 10 blue whales – every year.
“Our overall hope is that these findings provide a conduit to solutions at multiple levels,” said Dr. Peter Ross, the Vice-President of Research at Ocean Wise and one of the authors of the report. “These results illustrate the important role that we can all play in implementing solutions through the decisions we make as consumers, the green design options we choose as manufacturers, the engineering choices we make as wastewater treatment designers, and the initiatives we lead as policymakers in governments.”
Microplastics are mistaken for food in the ocean
This work is part of a wider Plastics Lab initiative to characterize the identity, fate and effects of microplastics in the world’s oceans. One of the major problems associated with microplastics is that they can be mistaken for food and ingested by biota, including zooplankton, fish and marine mammals.
How consumers can help
Consumers can help reduce the amount of microfiber pollution produced by their home laundry in several ways:
Wash textiles less often
Say “no” to fast fashion
Use a front-loading washing machine
Buy a lint trap for your washing machine
Ask the companies that make your favourite fashions to use fabrics that shed the least
Dr. Peter S. Ross
Dr. Anna Posacka
About Ocean Wise and its Plastics Lab
Ocean Wise is a global conservation organization that is committed to improving the health of our oceans. Through aquariums, education, research and digital communications, we directly inspire tens of millions of people to take actions that will benefit our planet. The Ocean Wise Plastics Lab is a research facility based in Vancouver, British Columbia (BC), Canada, specializing in microplastic pollution science. Established in 2014, the Plastics Lab combines urban- and ocean-oriented study designs, laboratory testing and forensic instrumentation to address the sources, transport and fate of microplastics in aquatic environments. It partners with industry, government agencies, Indigenous communities and academic groups to research microplastic pollution and guide solutions. Its multi-disciplinary research team studies microplastics in home laundry machine outflow, seawater, municipal wastewater/sewage, wild zooplankton, mussels, and the digestive tracts of aquatic animals.
About the Microfiber Partnership
In 2017, the Ocean Wise Plastics Lab launched the Microfiber Partnership, a solution-oriented research initiative that brings together researchers, the apparel industry, and government agencies concerned about the sources and impacts of microfiber pollution in the ocean. Central to this research initiative was the design of a dedicated washing machine test facility, the development of new methods to sample liquid laundry effluent and municipal wastewater, and the characterization of microfiber samples using microscopic image analysis and Fourier Transform Infra Red (FTIR) spectrometry. The Phase 1 research objectives of the Microfiber Partnership addressed three elementary topics:
Home laundry as a source of microfiber in the environment
Retention, fate and discharge of microfibers in a secondary wastewater treatment plant;
Forensic methods for the identification of textile microfibers following weathering in air, seawater and wastewater.