Our clothes are more than just coverings and protection against the elements. They are a silent language that conveys our identity, lifestyle and beliefs. Naturally, we think of how clothing will look and feel. But we don’t often pause to think about what is inside our garments or what happens to them in the wash. One result of this lack of awareness is the four billion microplastics in every square kilometre of the ocean.
What are We Wearing?
Ocean Wise researchers in Canada have found that most marine microplastics are synthetic textile fibres like nylon, acrylic, elastane, and polyester. They make up 70% of microplastics off the Pacific West Coast and 90% or more in the Atlantic.
This is not surprising since more than 60% of garment textiles are now synthetic. They are popular options for being lightweight, durable, versatile and cheap. But washing them releases around half a million tonnes of plastic microfibres into the ocean annually (the equivalent of almost three billion polyester shirts). Some wastewater treatment facilities capture most of them, but that still means that 900 tonnes can end up in the oceans of North America alone.
What are We Doing?
Environmentally responsible brands have partnered with research organizations like Ocean Wise to gain insight into the problem. Together, they’re designing innovative solutions to reduce the microplastics released throughout the garment’s life cycle, from the fabric mill to your washing machine and beyond.
Given the long lifespan of synthetic fabrics, conscious consumers play a major role in reducing microplastic pollution as well. In this post, we share eight ways to make a difference that you can adapt to your lifestyle.
8 Eco-Friendly Laundry Choices
Becoming part of the solution is as simple as being aware of your clothing’s fibre content and laundering it responsibly. Some of these ideas are quick and easy, while others are longer-term considerations. The main thing is to do what you can because every contribution matters.
1. Start With Quality
The case for buying quality clothing is that it means buying less often. But higher quality textiles also shed fewer fibres in the wash. That is especially true for fleece, one of the biggest microplastic shedders. Also, remember that tightly woven fabric (feels flat and smooth) sheds less than loosely woven fabric (feels fluffy or fuzzy).
2. Wash Less Often
Not all garments need washing after every wear. As a general guide, the closer it is to your skin, the more often it needs laundering (for example underwear, socks, tights, activewear). Experts say other garments can safely be re-worn a few times. Between wears, air out and spot clean garments to keep them fresh.
3. Wash More Gently
The combination of water, heat and friction weakens yarns and wears fabric out. Washing at 30*C (86*F) is usually warm enough. However, synthetics are best washed in cold water because heat melts and breaks down plastic. A shorter washing program, reduced spin cycle, and fuller loads will also lessen friction and extend the life of your clothes.
4. Take Care with Textiles
Mixing hard and soft fabrics causes more fibres to break in the wash. Some fibres, like rayon, are weaker when wet and require delicate care. Closing zippers before washing will extend their lifespan and stop them from chafing other fabrics. Reversing clothes will stop external trims like rivets from doing the same but also reduce fading.
5. Opt for Better Detergent
The alkaline composition and mineral abrasives of powder detergents break textile fibres down. Bleach and fabric softeners also wear on fibres, not to mention your skin. Soap nuts may seem like an eco-friendly alternative, but their rough texture is abrasive. Your best option is an eco-friendly, pH-neutral liquid detergent without bleach.
6. Use Laundry Filters
Laundry filters are scientifically proven to reduce fibre shedding dramatically. Options include laundry bags (Guppyfriend traps many fibres) and laundry balls (CoraBall traps the smallest fibres). But filters that attach to a washing machine outlet (like the Lint LUV-R or Filtrol 160) are the most effective, catching almost all microfibers.
7. Choose a Front Load Washer
Studies show that front-loading washing machines clean better, are gentler on clothes, and produce 70% less fibre shedding. They are also 25% to 45% more energy efficient and use up to 50% less water, making them even eco-friendlier. That may not be a quick and easy change, but worth noting as a sound long-term investment.
8. Let your Clothes Air Dry
In a clothes dryer, the blend of heat and friction is another fibre destroyer. Lint traps do capture a lot, but not enough to prevent pollution. When using a dryer is unavoidable, clean the lint trap before each load and do more than one while the machine is warm. The most fabric-friendly option is to air-dry clothes out of direct sunlight.
Let’s Turn the Tide on Marine Pollution
Marine microplastic pollution is a grave problem with far-reaching implications, but everyday choices can help to turn the tide. Garment care that protects the ocean also protects your clothes, keeping them in circulation and doubling your sustainability efforts.
But ultimately, this is not about checking all the boxes to meet an impossible standard of perfect sustainability. It’s about translating awareness and mindfulness into everyday actions that align with your values and lifestyle. Small changes can have a massive impact collectively.
By picking a handful of these tactics, you will be on your way to transforming laundry day into marine conservation day:
- Start with quality
- Wash less often
- Wash more gently
- Take care with textiles
- Opt for better detergent
- Use laundry filters
- Choose a front-loading washer
- Let your clothes air dry
Last but not least, consider signing up for the Plastic Pledge. With this campaign, Ocean Wise aims to reduce the flow of plastic into the sea by making people #plasticwise. Signing up gives you access to the science behind marine plastic pollution and science-based tools, tips, and resources that empower you to take action.
Ocean Trash: 5.25 Trillion Pieces and Counting, but Big Questions Remain
Fiber consumption share worldwide by type 2019 | Statista
Primary Microplastics in the Oceans: A Global Evaluation of Sources
Ocean Wise Microfibre Partnership
How many times can you wear pajamas, jeans and other clothes without washing them? Experts weigh in
Ask The Experts- Which Clothes Washer Should I Choose: Front Load or Top Load?
Science Says Laundry Balls And Filters Are Effective In Keeping Microfibers Out Of Waterways
The Microfiber Pollution Primer – Cora Ball