Forget Detergents, Simply Washing Clothes is Bad for Our Oceans

When Washed, Synthetic Clothes Release Billions of Mircoplastics that Bioaccumulate Up the Food Chain

Regular laundry detergents are bad for the environment — most of us know this by now. Detergents don’t completely biodegrade and they contaminate our water supplies, rivers and oceans with toxic heavy metals like cadmium and arsenic. Studies have shown that phosphates, a common ingredient in detergents, builds up in waterways and lead to eutrophication — big algal blooms that can starve fish and other plant life of oxygen. (For more information check out the US Environmental Protection Agency’s list of laundry detergent ingredient and their impacts.)

Photo by Benjamin Vander SteenWater samples from 18 shorelines across the world show that the contamination is pretty widespread.

Thankfully, there are enough environmentally friendly soaps and detergents around to help minimize the impact of conventional ones.

But now we have another problem. It appears that simply washing clothes, with or without detergents, is bad for the environment. Sigh! You deal with one issue and up pops another.

Well, to be accurate, it’s clothes made with synthetic fabrics — like nylon, polyester and rayon, all essentially plastic derivatives — that are the culprits here. New research published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology shows that synthetic clothes release billions of mircoplastics — teeny bits of plastic smaller than one millimeter — when washed. These microplastics eventually make their way into oceans where they slowly bioaccumulate up the food chain. (Like the thought of some mirco-acrylic bits in your tuna melt?)

“An important source of microplastic appears to be through sewage contaminated by fibers from washing clothes,” the researchers note. After sampling wastewater from domestic washing machines the scientists found that each synthetic garment releases up to 1,900 microplastic fiber bits every time it is washed. Current filtration devices can’t capture these particles.

The researchers also sampled waters from 18 shorelines across the world and found that the contamination was pretty widespread. “We found that there was no sample from around the world that did not contain pieces of microplastic,” Dr Mark Anthony Browne, lead author of the study, told the BBC.

It’s not clear yet how these plastics are affecting marine species or the health of people who eat seafood, but I can’t imagine they can be doing any good. The report concludes that “as the human population grows and people use more synthetic textiles, contamination of habitats and animals by microplastic is likely to increase.”

I think I need to do some serious clothes sorting when I get home today. But what to do with all the synthetic clothes I put aside? Can’t wrap my brain around that right now.

Suggestions are most welcome.

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