It may seem like no big deal to be bundling your clothes into your household washing machine at the end of the day. As with many conveniences in our modern world, there is a cost to our environment when we use them, including plastic pollution in our oceans!
There are around 840 million washing machines in use worldwide. Our individual house-hold chores can add up to a big impact on the planet! In this blog we will take a look at their big picture and how we can make small changes to help the environment.
From washing machine to sea
So how does washing my clothes contribute to plastics in the ocean?
It all comes down to what they are made of, tiny, tiny fibres. When washed, these fibres are released and suspended in the water, which then flows out of the waste pipe of the machine into the water-system, eventually ended up in rivers and the sea.
Clothes made of plastic-based compounds like polyester and nylon do-not break down easily in the water and contribute to the vast numbers of micro-plastic particles that end up in the ocean. A study found that a single garment can produce over 1900 micro-plastic fibres per wash! Other estimates suggest each time you run the washing machine, it can release over 700,000 fine plastic fibres into the environment. These catastrophic numbers suggest a large quantity of oceanic micro-plastic comes from us simply doing our laundry.
These microplastic fibres are potentially very damaging. They can easily be ingested by marine life some of which stays in their bodies. They either clog up their digestive systems or end up in crucial organs, harming or killing the animal. Microplastic fibres can also be easily ingested by us! Whilst we do not fully know the full implications of this on humans, there are signs in other species that the effects are not good! Furthermore, the continued breakdown of these plastic pieces can introduce toxic chemicals directly into the surrounding water. It can also alter the pH levels of our seas.
Watching what we wear
Of course, none of us wants to permanently pong because our clothes go un-washed, but there are definitely ways we can improve the impact we have when washing our clothes.
As always, the closer to the source we get, the more we can stop the problem. Buying fewer garments of better quality and durability is a great start. More durable garments will last longer and reduce microfibre shedding.
When you are out shopping also have a think about the fabrics you are buying. Generally, avoid petroleum-based synthetics including, polyester and nylon. These are plastics that shed thousands of micro-fibres when washed. Natural fibres like organic cotton, linen, hemp, and sustainably sourced wools have a much lower impact on the environment, due to their less-toxic chemical composition when the fibres break down. If they are organic, you can also be more confident that they were produced with less harm to the environment.
If you do purchase a synthetic garment, make sure it is durable. A more sustainable approach is to seek out clothes from recycled materials. Do note however, these will still shed non-biodegradable mircoplastic fibres.
Watching how we wash
Washing larger loads less frequently, will also help reduce the frequency of fibre shedding. If you combine this with washing on cooler cycles, you will not only save energy but, also make savings to your wallet as well!
Cooler washing cycles are in fact a ‘big-deal.’ 90% of a washing machine’s energy consumption is used to heat the water. Hotter washes also increase the frequency of fibre shedding as the increased heat can more easily break down the clothing fibres. In fact, researchers from Northumbria University found that washing clothes on shorter, cooler cycles reduced microfiber shedding by up to 30 percent.
As the waste water from washing machines ends up in the environment, we should also consider the harm caused by the detergents we use. Some of these contain toxic compounds like sodium laurel sulphate, and other phosphates which are highly toxic to aquatic organisms. Eco-friendly and all natural detergents do exist. Selecting these, whilst being mindful of companies ‘Green-Washing’ can also help.
Making these small changes can really help us wash our clothes with a cleaner conscience and reduce plastic fibres entering our seas. Committing to more sustainable laundry habits will reduce your overall climatic and carbon impact, reduce your energy consumption and save you money! A great bonus on top I think!