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The Impact of Washing Synthetic Plastics



Microfibres - tiny flecks of plastic, thinner than a human hair, which can be found in approximately 64% of modern textiles.  Though they may seem small and insignificant, they are spelling out big trouble for our oceans, aquatic life and food chains.


You may not realise it, but chances are that, right now, you are wearing something made of plastic.  Many modern textiles, including polyester, nylon, acrylic and polyamide are made from plastic and, though this plastic may be sourced in a seemingly ‘eco-friendly’ way (such as from recycled bottles), its widespread usage is causing devastation to our oceans.


When you wash clothes made from materials such as polyester, they shed tiny plastic microfibres.  In fact, it is believed that the average domestic wash is responsible for the release of approximately 700,000 microfibres.  As the washing machine drains, these microfibres then make their way through our water systems and into our oceans and riverbeds.  Unfortunately, washing machines and wastewater treatment plants are simply not designed to filter such small particles, so, once the microfibres have entered the water, there is little that can be done to stop them reaching the ocean.


According to Friends of the Earth, ‘sea organisms like plankton can easily mistake these tiny plastics for food. In turn, many smaller animals and fish depend on plankton as their main food source – the great blue whale is also a plankton eater. Anything that dines on the plankton will get a dose of plastic pollution – potentially passing microfibres up the food

chain.  These plastic fibres have even been found in mussels and fish destined for the dinner table. And there are other ways they might end up in your body too. Microfibres have been found in air, rivers, soil, drinking water, beer and table salt’.


What’s more, these tiny plastics can absorb high concentrations of poisonous chemicals, including substances which have now been banned such as DDT.  When consumed by humans, this can cause serious damage to the kidneys, liver and nervous system.  For much of our ocean life, this can be fatal.


So what can be done about this huge problem?  Currently, plastic materials dominate the textile world - from the clothes we wear, to the curtains and carpets with which we decorate our homes.  But, with their incredible campaign Ocean Clean Wash, Plastic Soup Foundation are fighting the devastating effects that these plastic microfibres are having on our oceans.  Ocean Clean Wash demands that textile companies start to take responsibility for the effects of microplastics, and to play a greater role in the prevention of plastic pollution.  Their research has shown that much can be done to prevent the release of microfibres into our oceans, including by changing the design of the fibres we use to make them larger and more dense and by applying natural anti-shed treatments to newly produced textiles.


We as consumers can also make a difference.  By making the following simple changes, we can play our part in ensuring that our clothes washes don’t contribute to the huge problem of plastic pollution in our oceans.


  • Use a Guppyfriend or Cora Ball when washing any synthetic textiles.  Both of these products are designed to catch any microfibres which are released by your clothes in the wash.  Though the fibres must eventually be disposed of, and these are therefore not a perfect solution, they can certainly help limit the quantity of microfibres ending up in the oceans.

  • Wash at 30 degrees celsius and air dry.  Washing with warmer water and tumble drying is much more aggressive and can therefore encourage more microfibres to be shed from washed textiles.

  • Buy less and look after your clothes to ensure they last longer.  The majority of microfibres are released in the first few washes of new garments.  This means that, the longer you keep an item of clothing, the lesser its impact per-wash will be.  Fleeces, in particular, are often the worst offenders for plastic pollution, with the average fleece jacket releasing 1,000,000 microfibres.

  • Sign petitions to encourage fashion companies to take control of the output of microfibres from their garments.  The following petition from Friends of the Earth is asking the government to implement new laws to help phase out plastic pollution: https://act.friendsoftheearth.uk/petition/help-reduce-plastic-oceans?_ga=2.76432405.1042965052.1597139511-1709167170.1597139511




Bibliography

  1. https://friendsoftheearth.uk/plastics/microfibres-plastic-in-our-clothes

  2. https://cdn.friendsoftheearth.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/reducing-household-plastics_0.pdf

  3. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-45770358

  4. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-44414056

  5. https://environmentjournal.online/articles/35-of-microplastics-in-oceans-come-from-clothing-research-reveals/

  6. https://www.oceancleanwash.org

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