Heavy load: Study breaks down toll of laundry microfibres on ocean ecosystems

A new report from Vancouver researchers suggests laundry machines in Canada and the U.S. release 878 tonnes of potentially harmful microfibres into aquatic environments every year.

That’s the equivalent to the weight of 10 blue whales flowing into oceans, lakes and rivers even after wastewater treatment, according to the study from Ocean Wise.

These tiny fibres, which break off clothing and other textiles during the wash cycle, include a large volume of plastics that don’t degrade and could cause serious problems in aquatic ecosystems, according to Peter Ross, vice-president of research at the conservation organization.

“We’re all connected to the oceans. We are connected through our wastewater stream that is our sink or toilet, or our washing machines or bathtubs,” Ross said.

“Our study provides a profound example that connection.”

The study was conducted at Ocean Wise’s Plastic Labs research facility, and involved washing 37 textile samples provided by the apparel companies MEC, Patagonia, REI and Arc’teryx, then filtering out the microfibres.

They discovered that polyester fabrics shed the most fibres and fleece was the worst offender, shedding up to 0.778 grams for every kilogram washed.

“Think of polyester fleece sweaters — nice warm fuzzy things. These are basically shredded plastic. They tend to lose a lot of fibres,” Ross said.

Polyester fabrics tend to shed a larger amount of microfibres than nylons do, the study found. (Ocean Wise)

Nylons were much less polluting, shedding an average of 0.027 grams per kilogram washed.

Natural fabrics shed, too

It wasn’t just the synthetic fabrics that shed microfibres. Natural fabrics like wool and cotton also released significant amounts.

As Ross pointed out, the microfibres from synthetics are more troubling because they won’t break down chemically in the ocean. That means they can end up accumulating in the stomachs of fish and marine mammals.

But Ross said this doesn’t necessarily mean consumers should abandon synthetic fabrics altogether and switch to natural fibres.

“Some of those natural items may be requiring lots and lots of water, or lots and lots of pesticides, or a lot of chemical treatment to produce,” he said.

One potential avenue for future research will be estimating the overall environmental footprints of different types of fabrics. Ross said he would also like to look into whether certain design features might reduce shedding from clothes.

For now, the researchers have a few suggestions for reducing microfibre shedding on laundry day.

They include washing items less frequently, buying clothing that’s made to last, using a front-loading washing machine and buying a lint trap.

Read more at CBC.ca