Delicate wash cycles are spewing microfibers into the environment

Brittany A. Roston - Sep 28, 2019, 8:00 am CDT
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Delicate wash cycles are spewing microfibers into the environment

If you want to help protect the environment, stop using the ‘delicate wash’ cycle on your washing machine, a new study suggests. Researchers with Newcastle University found the delicate wash cycle offered on most washing machines results in more plastic microfibers than other cycle options. These microfibers are flushed out of the machine in the water, ultimately entering the environment.

Clothing made with acrylic, nylon, and polyester produce millions of microfibers per wash cycle, according to the researchers. These microscopic bits of plastic end up in the world’s water systems, as do the microplastics resulting from plastic garbage degrading in the open environment, plastic items that are scraped during use, and more.

It’s difficult to filter these tiny bits of plastic from water, resulting in ingestion by both marine life and humans — the health consequences of this exposure are largely unknown. Many countries have taken steps to limit microplastics by banning them from certain products, including cosmetics, and consumers are encouraged to avoid introducing more of these plastics into the environment by using things like glitter.

According to this latest study, washing clothes on the delicate cycle may be producing excess microfibers due to the volume of water it uses. It was ultimately the quantity of water, not the spin cycle, that determined how many fibers were produced from the clothing. When compared to a standard washing cycle, the delicate cycle was found to produce around 800,000 more microfibers on average.

Study lead Max Kelly, PhD student, explained:

Counterintuitively, we discovered that ‘delicate’ cycles release more plastic microfibres into the water, and then the environment, than standard cycles. Previous research has suggested the speed the drum spins at, the number of times it changes spinning direction during a cycle and the length of pauses in the cycle – all known as the machine agitation – is the most important factor in the amount of microfibre released. But we have shown here that even at reduced levels of agitation, microfibre release is still greatest with higher water-volume-to-fabric ratios.


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