Scientists Discovered a Simple Laundry Tweak That Can Cut Down on Ocean Pollution
Add laundry to the laundry list of human activities that harm our environment. Every time you wash your clothes, thousands of tiny particles of plastic called microplastics are released from the fabric and find their way into waterways and out to the ocean. Now, new research published in Environmental Science and Technology sheds light on why these fibers shed — and how we can cut down on that laundry-day pollution. Like many problems that impact our environment, the contributing factors are complicated, as are the solutions.
Life Is Plastic, It's Not Fantastic
The plastics that have captured headlines and spawned legislation are shopping bags and drinking straws, but most of the plastic found in the ocean is so small — less than 5 millimeters — that you can't even see it with the naked eye.
Microplastics come from a variety of sources and products. They used to be in body scrubs, hand sanitizers, and toothpaste for sale in the U.S., but thanks to the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, that's no longer the case. But our clothes are a big contributor. More than a third of microplastics found in the ocean originated from clothing. Synthetic materials like polyester, nylon, and acrylic give clothes their stretch and breathability and account for nearly 60 percent of the materials used in clothes worldwide. They're also forms of plastic.
Potentially hundreds of thousands of these fibers enter our water supply after a single load of laundry. It was previously thought that the washing machine's agitation — how fast the drum spins, how long it pauses, and how often it changes direction — was the most important factor when it came to how many fibers were shed from the clothes. But the latest study from scientists at Newcastle University found it's actually the volume of water used during a wash cycle that affects shedding levels. In fact, the team found that the delicate cycle did the most harm: 800,000 more fibers were shed during a delicate wash than a standard cycle.
So how do these puny particles make their way from your washing machine to the big blue sea? Most machines either don't have filters or have filters that aren't fine enough to catch plastic microfibers. The debris goes out with the wastewater and makes its way to a treatment plant. Filters there will catch most microplastics, but a portion will continue on to rivers and eventually end up in even the deepest depths of the ocean.
Plastics take several hundred years, if not millennia, to degrade, meaning fibers generated now will remain in the environment for generations. Plastic particles also tend to find their way back into our bodies. Plastic teabags, for instance, release billions of microplastics into your brew.
Microfibers have been detected in bottled water, seafood, and even human poop. Scientists estimate we consume about 50,000 plastic particles per year, sometimes just from breathing.
"We know very little about the impacts of microfibers on the health of nonhuman animals and people," Mary Catherine O'Connor, a reporter with Ensia, recently explained in a series on microfiber plastic pollution. "But what we do know suggests a need for additional research."
So do we all just stop washing our clothes? No, and according to the Newcastle University researchers, avoiding the delicate cycle and buying a high-efficiency washing machine (which uses less water overall) can help a bit. But alternative solutions aren't that simple either.
Logic would suggest wearing natural fabrics like cotton would solve the problem. But these textiles are often more expensive than synthetic materials, which means the solution isn't accessible to everyone and therefore not very realistic. Natural fabrics carry other environmental costs too, like requiring large volumes of water to produce.
Knowing that synthetic materials are here to stay, materials company PrimaLoft is working on making them biodegradable. The company shredded and melted down end-of-life plastic bottles and added a simple sugar to the resulting fibers, which led microbes in the ocean and in landfills to feed on them. Standard polyester fibers degrade by only 1 percent after 500 days whereas PrimaLoft's biodegradable textile decomposed by 85 percent in the same amount of time.
But it's better to stop microplastics from reaching the ocean in the first place rather than trying to minimize their harm once they get there. There are two approaches to this: Creating textiles that shed fewer fibers and upgrading filtration technology to trap the particles earlier. A filter in development by a team at the University of Exeter traps about 75 percent of particles and breaks them down using genetically modified enzymes. While individual-level changes add up and help our pollution problems, it ultimately takes larger change on the corporate and manufacturing level to really make a dent.
So next time your dirty laundry starts stacking up, take heart in knowing that you're helping the environment by doing fewer loads. And when laundry day does come around, skip the delicate cycle and try to use a high-efficiency washing machine. The oceans will thank you.Source:Web