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In the face of environmental concerns, microfiber pollution has practically come out of nowhere. It was only about a decade ago that scientists first suspected that our clothing, which is increasingly being made from synthetic materials such as polyester and nylon, could be a major contributor to climate change Global plastic problem.
Today, a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the tiny threads that detach from clothing are present everywhere and in everything. After an estimate, they account for up to a third of all microplastics entering the oceans. They have been found on Mount Everest and in the Mariana Trench, along with tap water, plankton, shrimp entrails and our bottom.
What this means for human and planetary health remains to be clarified by research. But emerging science has led some governments, particularly in the Global North, to scramble to respond. Their first target: the humble washing machine that environmentalists say is a key route by which microfiber pollution reaches the environment.
Late last month, a California State Assembly committee held a hearing Assembly Act 1628, which by 2029 would require new washing machines to include devices that capture particles down to 100 microns in size — roughly the width of a human hair. The Golden State is not alone here, or even in first place. France has already approved such a requirement effective from 2025. Legislators in Oregon and Ontario, Canada, have been considering similar bills. The European Commission says it will do the same in 2025.
Environmental groups, geoscientists and some outdoor apparel companies are hailing the guidelines as an important first response to a massive problem. But quietly, some sustainability experts are baffled by all the focus on washers. They doubt that filters will make much of a difference and say what is really needed is a major switch how we do, clean And dispose of clothes.
Washing is “just one point of failure in the garment lifecycle. It’s completely insane to focus on that tiny, tiny moment of washing,” said Richard Blackburn, Professor of Sustainable Materials at the University of Leeds. “It would be much better to focus on the whole life cycle of the garment, where the manufacturing phase is much more significant in terms of loss than washing, but all points should be considered.”
Today about 60 percent of all textiles Take over synthetic material. Anyone who has worn yoga pants, workout clothes, or stretchy jeans knows the benefits: these materials provide softness, moisture wicking, and flexibility. Under the microscope, however, they look like plain old plastic. From the moment they are made, synthetic garments – like all garments – release tiny scraps of themselves. Once freed, these fibers are no easier to retrieve than glitter tossed in the wind. But their size, shape, and tendency to absorb chemicals have scientists concerned about their impact on habitats and the food chain.
Anja Brandon is associate director for US plastics policy at the Ocean Conservancy, which sponsored the California and Oregon bills. She concedes that filters won’t fix the problem, but believes they offer a way to get started. She also supports apparel innovation but said they could be years away. “For my part, I don’t want to wait until it’s a five-alarm fire,” she said.
Studies suggest that a typical load of laundry can release thousands or even millions of fibers. Commercially available filters such as PlanetCare, Lint LUV-R and Filtrol filter the greywater through ultra-fine meshes before flushing it out into the world. It’s of course the owner’s job to regularly empty this filter – ideally into a bin liner, which Brandon says secures microfibers better than the status quo of letting them out into the wild.
Washing machine makers in the US and Europe have pushed back, saying the appliances pose technical risks like flooding and increased energy use that need to be addressed first. University experiments with these filters, including an often cited one 2019 University of Toronto and Ocean Conservancy studyhaven’t found these issues but it’s not a closed case yet: last year a covenant report on microfibers, led by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, called for more research in this direction.
Manufacturers also argue that microfibers originate in many places, but washers are relatively humble. As self-serving as that sounds, people studying the subject agree that there is a huge gap in the available science: while we know that clothing sheds microfibers throughout our lives, we know surprisingly little about how when most of these happen.
Some evidence suggests that friction is simple wear and tear Clothing can release about as many microfibers as it is washed. Then there are dryers, which some suspect are a major source of microfiber litter but have been little studied, according to the federal report. There’s also limited knowledge about how much microfiber pollution originates in the developing world, where most people hand wash. (A recent learn led by Hangzhou Dianzi University in Hangzhou, China, pointed to this knowledge gap — noting that hand washing two synthetic fabrics released, on average, 80 to 90 percent less microfiber soil than machine washing.)
For Blackburn, it is clear that most of the releases occur in textile mills, where it has been known for centuries that many fibers are spilled during the spinning, weaving, dyeing and finishing of fabrics. “Where do you think it goes when we get it from the factory?” he said. “It’s going outside.”
He calls the filter policy “totally reactionary” and argues that at best they would reduce the overall microfiber problem by a few percentage points. But Blackburn largely agrees with environmentalists on one point: Over the long term, tackling the problem will require a lot of new technology. So far, no miracle solution has surfaced, but a number of recent announcements show a vibrant research and development scene tackling the problem from many angles.
Some best practices are already known in the industry. For example, tightly woven clothing and clothing made from long fibers tend to fray less than short ones. But for years, popular brands like Patagonia and REI have said they really need a way to experiment with lots of different materials and compare their skins head-to-head. That was difficult: microfibers are, well, microfibers, and there’s no industry standard for how to measure them.
That could change. In separate announcements in February Hohensteina company that develops international standards for textiles and an activewear brand under armor disclosed new methods in this direction. Under Armor aims to have 75 percent “low-shedding” fabrics in its products by 2030.
These approaches would at best reduce microfiber emissions, not eliminate them. Another area of research is what Blackburn calls “biocompatibility”: making microfibers less harmful to nature. California-based Intrinsic Advanced Materials sells a pre-treatment added to fabrics during manufacture that claims to help polyester and nylon biodegrade in seawater in years instead of decades. Blackburn’s own startup Keracol develops natural dyes, which are obtained from fruit waste, for example, and decompose more easily in nature than synthetic ones.
New ideas for disposing of clothing are also emerging, although some environmentalists will raise eyebrows. This year, US chemicals giant Eastman will begin building a facility in Normandy, France, which it says will “unpack” hard-to-recycle plastics like polyester clothing into molecular precursors that can be made into new products like clothing and insulation . Critics charge that such “chemical recycling” techniques are not only important dubious benefit for the environment, they’re really just a smokescreen for fossil fuel companies trying to sustain demand for their product.
So that nobody forgets about washing machines, there is also research and development to take care of them. In January, Patagonia and gadget giant Samsung announced A model they claim reduces microplastic emissions by up to 54%. It has already been launched in Europe and Korea. Around the same time, University of Toronto researchers published research on a coating they claim makes nylon fabrics more slippery in the wash, reducing friction and therefore microfiber emissions by 90 percent after nine washes. in one press release The researchers commended governments for their focus on washing machine filters, which they described as a “band-aid” to the problem.
A common thread running through all these efforts, of course, is that they all work with imperfect information. Emerging science about microfibers – and microplastics in general – suggests that they are gritty fact of modern life, but does not yet show the extent of their damage to humans and other species. At the moment, environmentalists, politicians and manufacturers are not only debating adding filters to washing machines, but also whether we know enough to act. 20 years from now, when scientists know a lot more, it will be easier to judge whether today’s policies represent proactive leadership — or a wet patch — on an emerging environmental problem.
Editor’s Note: Patagonia is an advertiser at Grist. Advertisers play no part in Grist’s editorial decisions.
This article originally appeared in grist at https://grist.org/technology/how-do-you-tackle-microplastics-start-with-your-washing-machine/. Grist is a non-profit, independent media organization dedicated to telling stories about climate solutions and a just future. Learn more at Grist.org