In 2011, ecologists from the University of New South Wales, Australia, made a disturbing discovery: trillions of tiny plastic microfibres are contaminating the world’s oceans, lakes and rivers. The study found that, on 18 different shorelines in six continents, 85 percent of the shores’ sediment was made up of microfibres, which had come largely from clothing.
So just how did they get there? Increasingly, the majority of our clothes are made from synthetic fibres, like polyester. When synthetic clothing is washed, thousands of tiny plastic fibres are released, and the resulting wastewater travels through sewage systems to rivers and oceans, posing a health risk to wildlife, plants and marine habitats – as well as taking centuries to decompose. Microfibres are able to slip through nets and filtration systems that catch larger pollutants, and they are commonly mistaken for food by marine life, which disrupts feeding and digestion.
More than 1,900 fibres can be produced by a single garment in just one wash. A 2016 study by the University of California in Santa Barbara found that a city the size of Berlin will release a wash-related volume of microfibres equivalent to 500,000 plastic bags – every single day.
While giving up on washing our clothes is obviously not an option, there is one solution that can help reduce the amount of microfibres that are released. Horrified by reports of the environmental threats posed by microfibres, Alexander Nolte and Oliver Spies, co-founders of German outdoor apparel company Langbrett and non-profit organisation Stop! Micro Waste, came up with an ingenious solution: the Guppyfriend. The Guppyfriend is a self-cleaning mesh bag that goes in the washing machine, with your dirty clothes inside it. The bag filters out any broken microfibres so that, instead of being washed away with the laundry wastewater, they can be removed and safely disposed of in the household trash. When tested by a number of scientific institutes, the bag was found to retain at least 90 percent of fibres (in the majority of the tests, this was closer to 100 percent). The Guppyfriend is made from monofilaments, which are more like sticks than threads, so it doesn’t release any fibres itself.
The bag also increases the lifespan of your clothes, as there is less fibre loss compared to when washing without the bag – in tests, there was a 79 percent reduction in loss of fibres for partly synthetic clothing, and an 86 percent reduction for clothes made entirely from synthetic fabrics. In addition, after 50 washes, the bag and its seams were all intact.
Other ways to reduce the environmental impact of laundry day
– Choose a front-loading washing machine. Interestingly, the study by the University of California also found that top-loading washing machines – more commonly used in the US than in the UK – increased the average amount of fibres shed from clothing, compared to front-loading washing machines. Front loaders also consume less water: an average of almost 23 litres less per cycle. They’re also more energy-efficient and cheaper to run.
– Air-dry your clothes. Washing and drying a load of laundry every two days creates around 440kg of CO2e each year – the same amount that flying from London to Glasgow and back would consume (with 15-mile taxi rides to and from the airports). However, much of that carbon footprint comes from tumble drying. 3.3kg of CO2e is created when washing and drying clothes at 40°C, compared to 0.7kg when simply washing clothes at the same temperature and allowing them to air-dry. Air-dry your clothes and they’ll last longer, too: clothes dried in a tumble dryer just 20 times a year will tear twice as much as air-dried garments, and they’re more likely to shrink and fade as well.
– Turn the temperature down. Around 90 percent of the energy used to operate a washing machine comes from heating the water. The less hot water you use, the more energy you’ll save. Cold water is just as effective at cleaning a regular load of laundry as hot water, unless you’re trying to remove oily stains.
– Choose your washing powder carefully. Look out for eco-friendly laundry detergents. The Environmental Working Group has a handy guide to laundry cleaners, with an alphabetical rating system that grades products based on the hazards the ingredients pose to health or the environment.