Study tallies up the plastic fibers shed globally through laundry

Discarded soda bottles, cigarette butts and fishing nets are some common examples of pollution in the ocean, but our problems with plastic don’t end with the pieces that you see. Laundry cycles see our clothes shed huge amounts of microplastic fibers into the wastewater and scientists have now made an effort to quantify this, estimating that millions of metric tonnes of these synthetic fibers have entered waterbodies since 1950.

While the impact of washing cycles on the environment has never been measured in exactly this way, it has started to attract more and more attention from researchers working to understand the true extent of our plastic problem. For example, earlier this year we looked at research suggesting short, cold-water washing cycles can minimize the amount of fibers that our clothes shed, while another study from last year looked at how sound waves can be used to separate them from wastewater at the source.

To survey the problem on a worldwide scale, scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara drew from global datasets on apparel production, clothing use and retention, washing habits and wastewater treatment. The team looked at the period between 1950, when synthetic fibers first began to be used on a mass scale, and 2016, and calculated that a total of 5.6 million metric tonnes of synthetic microfibers have escaped washing machines and entered the environment in that time.

“If you look at the figures you can see the enormous growth in synthetic clothes production, and as a result, increased synthetic microfiber pollution,” says industrial ecology professor and paper co-author Roland Geyer.

What surprised the scientists was not just how much plastic waste is generated in this way, but where it all ends up. While we know a large chunk of it washes into the marine environment, some 2.9 metric tonnes, the team found that almost as much, 2.5 million tonnes, makes its way into the terrestrial environment.

This occurs as a result of the processes at wastewater treatment plants, in which everything except for the tiniest microplastics are caught in the sludge. This semi-solid material is then treated and in vast quantities, turned into fertilizer and conditioners for soil.

“So then it becomes a terrestrial pollution issue,” Geyer says. “We just turned it into a different environmental pollution issue rather than having actually solved it.”

The team is of the view that the best solution to this problem is to focus our efforts on capturing these fibers at the source. Gentler washing cycles, or cooler ones as mentioned above, are a couple of ways we might do this, but built-in filters that collect the fibers during a washing cycle could also be a part of the equation.

Knowing where these fibers come from and the path they take through the environment will help plug some of the gaps in our knowledge around plastic pollution, but there remains a lot to learn, particularly when it comes to the impacts on living organisms.

“There are huge unknowns,” says industrial ecology professor Sangwon Suh. “The amount of microplastics and microfibers that are generated is quite massive and continuing to rise, and if it continues there will be big changes, the consequences of which we are not yet sure. That’s what makes it concerning.”

The research was published in the journal PLOS One.

Recent news

Tropical Tracker: Have there been storms after hurricane season ends?

Hurricane season runs through Nov. 30 ORLANDO, Fla. – There is still about five weeks… Read more

Storm-battered U.S. Gulf Coast braces for Hurricane Delta

KEY POINTS Hurricane Delta, which mostly spared Mexico on Wednesday, is now strengthening over the… Read more

Taur electric scooter is built for life on the road

Folks wanting to leave the car at home may look to electric kickscooters for last… Read more

Epsilon Becomes the 10th Hurricane This Season

A tropical storm watch is in effect for Bermuda. Epsilon has become a hurricane, making… Read more

Tropical Storm Epsilon likely to gain hurricane strength

Tropical Storm Epsilon is expected to strengthen into a hurricane late this week as it… Read more

Yelp wants to give adult children $2,000 to help move out of their parents’ houses

Over half of young adults, or 26.6 million of those ages 18 to 29, live… Read more

Tropical Depression Twenty-Seven Forms in the Central Atlantic, Should Intensify Into a Hurricane

Tropical Depression Twenty-Seven has formed in the Atlantic. The depression is forecast to become Hurricane… Read more

Tropical Depression 27 forms in Atlantic, TS Epsilon expected to form soon

Tropical Depression 27 formed Monday morning in the Atlantic and has odds of growing into… Read more

Henkel Addresses Plastic Waste

Supports call for UN treaty on plastic pollution. Henkel, together with 28 other major global… Read more

It might be worth it to move to a cheaper city, even if your company cuts your pay

Trying to move but weighing a potential pay cut? It still might be worth it.… Read more