Last updated: March 1, 2023
The laundering of synthetic fabrics is considered a substantial source of microfibers (i.e., tiny polyester and acrylic threads) to the environment. Day to day operations create soiled table linens, aprons, towels, uniforms, and more. Every time fabric is laundered, the churning and vibration of the washing machine, combined with the friction from other clothes, causes fibers to dislodge from the fabric and enter the wash water. Additionally, dryers release airborne microfibers into the air. A pilot study found that clothes dryers release more microfibers than washing machines. Air from dryer vents typically leads directly to the environment with little filtration.Microfibers are so small they go down the drain, pass through our water treatment plants, and end up directly in our waterways. Once the microfibers have reached the waterways, they continue to float in the water. Fish, mussels, and clams ingest microfibers causing the health of the ecosystem to decline. In addition to the harmful impacts on the environment, microfibers make their way into our food chain and onto our dinner plates
Retrofitting a microplastic filter can reduce the number of microplastics released into the environment. Some filters attach to the exterior of the machine and catch fibers before they can make their way to wastewater streams. The system attaches to your washing machine’s drain line and uses a layer of thin steel mesh with tiny openings to trap microfibers. A 2018 study by the University of Toronto and Ocean Conservancy found that, on average, one type of after-market washing machine filter captured 87% of the microfibers shed by fleece blankets in the wash. Other filters on the market are thrown into the machine with the laundry to catch fibers while the clothes are circulating in the washing machine. In addition to retrofitting laundry machines, and understanding the laundry practices and water conservation guidelines to reduce energy and waste, the following guidelines reduce microfiber shedding:
Only wash full loads of laundry. Washing a full load of fabrics reduces friction leading to less shedding of fibers.
Wash fabrics less often. This alternative is not always possible for health and safety reasons; however, this is the simplest way to reduce microfiber pollution.
Wash laundry on cold for a shorter time.
If possible, use a front-loading washer.
Microfibers cannot be recycled along with other items like plastic and aluminum. However, some companies are working towards a solution to recycle or repurpose microfibers. Currently, disposing of them in a sealed, non-recyclable container reduces their risk of ending up in waterways.
In addition to releasing microfibers directly into the environment, energy use by dryers contributes to climate change. The sustainability of commercial and household dryers has a long way to go. Dryer energy consumption and microfiber output can be reduced in the following ways:
Air dry laundry when possible. By avoiding the use of a dryer all together, the use of energy and risk of pollutants significantly decreases.
Reduce the temperature and time of drying. Lowering the heat and drying time leads to less energy consumption.
Clean the lint filter after each load. Cleaning the lint filter between every load increase energy efficiency.
Avoid the use of dryer sheets as they can lead to residue buildup in the dryer and on the lint filter, opt for dryer balls instead. Dryer balls separate the laundry and increase airflow, cutting down on the drying time and saving energy.
Install an outdoor lint trap to reduce the amount of lint and microfibers escaping into the environment.
By using energy conserving practices while drying laundry, microfiber pollution can be reduced. Review Energy Star Laundry Best Practices for more tips on how to save energy and the environment while doing laundry.
If possible, opt for natural materials like cotton, linen, and hemp rather than polyester or nylon. Natural fibers still shed fibers however, the fibers shed by natural fibers are less harmful than synthetic fabrics. Synthetic fabrics like polyester are made from petroleum that is not biodegradable. In addition to its harmful presence in the ecosystem, it takes twice the amount of energy to produce than cotton.