Ditch the Delicate Wash Cycle to Save Our Seas

Millions of plastic microfibers are shed every time we wash clothes that contain materials such as nylon, polyester, and acrylic. Professor Grant Burgess, Max Kelly, Newcastle University, and Dr. Neil Lant, P&G. (Image: Newcastle University)
Millions of plastic microfibers are shed every time we wash clothes that contain materials such as nylon, polyester, and acrylic. Professor Grant Burgess, Max Kelly, Newcastle University, and Dr. Neil Lant, P&G. (Image: Newcastle University)

New research led by Newcastle University has shown that it is the volume of water used during the wash cycle, rather than the spinning action of the washing machine, that is the key factor in the release of plastic microfibers from clothes.

Millions of plastic microfibers are shed every time we wash clothes that contain materials such as nylon, polyester, and acrylic. Because these fibers are so small, they drain out of our washing machines and can ultimately enter the marine environment.

Once in the ocean, they are ingested by the animals living there and two years ago, Newcastle University scientists showed for the first time these fibers have now reached the deepest parts of our ocean.

800,000 more fibers released in a delicate wash

Working with Procter & Gamble in Newcastle, the team measured the release of plastic microfibers from polyester clothing for a range of cycles and water volumes. Counting the fibers released, the team found the higher the volume of water the more fibers released, regardless of the speed and abrasive forces of the washing machine.

In fact, they found that on average, 800,000 more fibers were released in a delicate wash than a standard cycle. Publishing their findings today in the academic journal Environmental Science and Technology, Ph.D. student Max Kelly, who led the research, explained:

Plastic pollution in the ocean

Plastic pollution is one of the biggest challenges facing society today and understanding the key sources is an important process to help reduce our impact on the environment.

Laundry has been recognized as a major contributor of microplastics, but until now, precisely measuring the release of these fibers has been difficult due to the fact that it’s almost impossible to accurately simulate the reality of what happens in people’s machines in a lab setting.

Using a tergotometer — a bench top device comprised of eight (1000 ml) washing vessels that simulate full-scale domestic washing, the team was able to carry out tests under different conditions, making changes to water volume, spin speed, temperature, and time.

A DigiEye camera — digital color imaging system — was then used to accurately calculate the amount of microfibers released.

To test whether the observations made using the tergotometers were reflective of full-size domestic washing machines, the team then tested the fabrics on a delicate wash cycle using identical washing machines in the test center at Procter and Gamble (P&G).

The team showed that previous recommendations by groups to move toward high water volumes and low levels of agitation as a way of reducing the amount of microfiber released was actually making the problem worse.

‘It’s the small changes that make a huge difference’

Neil Lant, Research Fellow at P&G and co-author of the study, said:

Max Kelly adds:

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