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Oceans, microfibres and your washing machine

How we wash our clothes can release millions of plastic microfibres into the water system

We know that it's better for the environment to wash in cold water and hang our clothes to dry, but did you know that your clothes shed microfibres when you wash them? These microfibres then end up passing through our wastewater treatment plants and heading on out into our oceans to be consumed by marine life. From there they work their way up the food chain, onto our plates.

The effects of plastic microfibres on the food chain

After first assuming that the plastic microfibres being found in our oceans were the result of degrading sea litter, it was realised in 2011 that the tiny plastic fibres have much more in common with fibres found on land.  Specifically with synthetic fabric fibres.  The MERMAIDS Life+ project estimate that an acrylic scarf will shed 300000 fibres in a wash, and a fleece jacket sheds almost a million, every single time they're washed.  Whilst there is some debate about the amount of potential background contamination in the fish samples taken (that is, microfibres from the laboratories themselves, etc), there have been large amounts of microfibres spread around world oceans, and integrated into deep water organisms at depths of 300 and even 1800 metres deep.  Smaller fish eat them, mistaking them for plankton, and so they make their way up the food chain.  

Plastic microfibres have been found in different types of seafood and fish, and even in salt, honey and sugar canes.  It's not yet known what effect this may have on human and marine health. 

What can I do about it?

So, do I need to get rid of all of my synthetic things?  As much as we advocate for natural fibres, given the realities of modern life that's probably not a feasible plan.  Synthetic fabrics make up more than 60% of the fashion market! 

Given that a significant source of these microfibres are released during clothes washing, there are several things that we can do at home to minimise the problem.

Wash less 

Stop and consider how dirty your clothes really are before you put them out for a wash.  Re-wearing your basically clean clothes will not only save you time and money in washing, but be better for the environment.  

Wash full, tightly packed loads

More clothes in your washing machine will reduce friction between the clothes as they're washed, and they will shed less microfibres.  Of course you still want a functionally clean load, but don't be scared to wait for a full wash - a boy-wash for the win!

Use fabric softener and liquid detergent

Fabric softener can also reduce the friction between the clothes in the wash, and reduce shedding.  Detergent granules are rougher on fabrics than liquids and so cause more friction.

Slow your spin

Okay, I'm a shocker here for cranking up the spin to maximum, but once again, slower/less spinning reduces the friction and shedding. 

Wash low and fast

Using fast wash times, and lower temperatures leads to less damage of the fabric, and less shedding. And lower hot water bills.

Bin your lint

If you need to use a clothes dryer, make sure you put your lint in the bin.

Hand wash

Eeek!  Yes, I went there.  If you're have an item that's highly synthetic, have a think about hand washing it.  I know it's not fun, but it will significantly reduce the shed. 

While we've mainly chatted about synthetic clothes here, please also be mindful of your natural fabric clothes, because whilst they won't shed plastic fibres, their natural fibres can also end up in the waste water. These effects have been less well researched, however they do have the added benefit of degrading much more readily than plastics.

I was quite shocked to find out how much my washing habits can affect the environment, but if we work together, hopefully also with fabric manufacturers making more stable fabrics, we really can make a difference for our world and our oceans.

Changes to washing your clothes can help the food chain


  • Information and infographic from MERMAID Life+ project 
  • Peg photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash
  • Cover photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

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