It’s been called the biggest pollution problem that you have never heard of, yet it’s found on the highest mountain peaks, in the deepest oceans, in the air – even in our blood. Indeed, microplastics could prove to be one of the most challenging pollutants to date, prompting changes in government regulations, the kind of textiles we wear, and the appliances we buy.
For decades, scientists have been acutely aware that plastics and synthetics have been shedding tiny fibers into our environment. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), so-called microplastics—particles that range in dimension from about the size of a sesame seed to invisible specks smaller than a micrometer—have been spinning out into the water and air for decades, the result of abrasion and the gradual decay of everything from plastic bags and bottles to packaging and building materials. Consequently, the microscopic plastic debris has made its way into every segment of the environment and food chain.
It’s estimated that people consume the equivalent of a credit card in plastic every week, according to a 2019 report from the World Wildlife Fund and the University of Newcastle in Australia. And microplastics are in everything from baby formula to table salt to beer. So, it’s not surprising that a recent study published by the American Chemical Society found that microplastics have even wheedled their way into human heart tissue.
While long-term studies will be needed to precisely determine the ultimate health risks microplastics pose to us, researchers and scientists point out that what we do know already is not positive. Foreign particulates, for example, are associated with various forms of cancers and the compounds in many plastics are toxic and known to be endocrine (hormonal) disruptors. Inhaling exceptionally fine foreign particles can also lead to cardiovascular illnesses. And microplastics attract other hazardous toxins like heavy metals, which can build up in our bodies. Consequently, many government regulators aren’t waiting to hear more bad news and are working to institute new laws to curb microplastic pollution.
Denmark, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Norway, and The Netherlands have petitioned the European Union to implement rules to reduce microplastics. Last year, the United Nations Environment Assembly agreed to create an international, legally binding agreement next year to end plastic pollution. And several states in the U.S. including California and Oregon are looking at regulations to cut microplastic waste. One of the primary targets of these new laws: washing machines.
“A growing number of governments are on a path to requiring that new washing machines be sold with microplastic filters,” says Terry Moore, chairman of CleanR. “France took the lead in 2020, passing a law that will require them beginning January 1, 2025.”
The focus on such appliances is due to the fact that washing machine wastewater is the largest source of microplastics pollution. “Over a half-million tons of microplastics enter the environment from [them] every year,” says Moore, whose company has developed filters for microplastics that can be built into washing machines or added as aftermarket upgrades.
The Culprits: Our Clothes
The washing machine microplastics come from the abrasion caused in cleaning synthetic textiles like fleece, lycra, nylon, and polyester, all of which shed microplastic fibers. The microplastics are then flushed out into the water system, eventually making their way into rivers and oceans—and into the food chain. Consequently, our clothes are the largest known source of microplastics, accounting for an estimated 35 percent of all such pollutants.
However, progress on creating textiles that don’t shed has been difficult to achieve. Several clothing brands turned down invitations from Dealerscope to comment on the issue. Polartec was one exception; the company said it has been working for several years to create new fabrics.
“Polartec has been focused on the issue of mitigating fiber fragments in the environment since 2016 when it started working on developing its Polartec Power Air technology,” said Karen Beattie, director of product management at Polartec.
The company is a supplier to several leading athletic and outerwear brands, such as Adidas, Black Diamond, Fila, and Marmot. Its shedding-resistant Power Air textile is already available in garments such as Reigning Champ’s Polartec Crewneck for men, a knit thermal fleece. A test sample from Reigning Champ has proven it to be as warm, if not warmer, than most fleeces of the same weight, and its dual-surface design not only encapsulates air to improve insulation, but also resists microfiber shedding by up to 5 times when compared to regular fleeces, according to the company.
Polartec also recently developed a new fabric called Shed Less Technology, which promises to use innovations in fiber, yarn, knitting, and chemistry to reduce microplastic shedding in home laundering by an average of 85 percent. According to Polartec’s Beattie, the material doesn’t rely on tighter weaves or special coatings but rather on improved manufacturing techniques to boost the fabric’s shedding performance.
Filters for Now
Also available to consumers are aftermarket gadgets and filters for capturing microplastics generated by washing machines. One example is the $42 Cora Ball, a sphere of stretchy plastic that is designed to be thrown in with the laundry and adhere to microfibers in the wash cycle. Some reported tests found the Cora Ball could reduce microplastics escaping into the laundry waste-water by about 30 percent. While this may seem modestly effective, one advantage of the Cora Ball is that it can be used in shared washers like those in an apartment building or a laundromat. However, aftermarket filters for washing machines are much more effective—and difficult to install.
The Girlfriend Collective’s $45 Microfiber Filter, for example, needs to be installed on a washing machine’s waste line and requires a fair amount of extra room; it is 10.25 inches wide and 6.5 inches high. It uses a mesh steel filter and must be emptied into the trash every 3 or 4 loads. On the other hand, the company claims it can capture over 90 percent of microplastics from the wash.
More aftermarket microfiber filters are coming. The newest announced model is from Cleanr, which debuted in September at IFA Berlin 2023. It uses a unique design intended to meet the more stringent forthcoming French regulatory requirements, according to Cleanr’s Moore, and the filter can be used for a week before its filter “pods” must be discarded. The company also hopes to have its design built into forthcoming washing machines. The product will likely hit the market with a suggested retail price of around $150.
Indeed, if regulators have their way, eventually washing machines will have to include some type of microplastic filter. In fact, Samsung and LG are two appliance manufacturers that have already been working to address the issue.
Samsung began with a special Less Microfiber Cycle, designed last year in partnership with Patagonia, and offered it in some machines to reduce abrasion and thus minimize shedding. This past summer, Samsung announced the introduction of a Less Microfiber Filter. It is an external filter whose status can be tracked on the SmartThings app, only needs to be cleaned once a month, and can be installed on top of existing washers. Anticipated to be priced at $120, global availability is expected later this year.
Meanwhile, LG introduced its own “microplastic care” cycle for LG ThinQ UP washers earlier this year. The microplastic care course uses a gentler motion and lower water temperatures to reduce the pollution caused by shedding of synthetics by as much as 70 percent, according to the company. LG also said the new cycle can be installed as a software upgrade for compatible ThinQ UP washers.
The Future of Microplastics
While microplastic filters have yet to make a big splash in the washing machine market, they may be a foregone conclusion as governments move to pass legislation that requires them. And rather than deploying a stick approach, some municipalities are using carrots instead. In New Jersey, for example, the government is considering offering rebates of up to $100 for consumers who purchase an external microfiber filter.
Still, we’re a long way off from industry standards and brand labeling for microplastic friendly products.
“As of now, there is no specific certification company or label that consumers can look for to identify garments made with materials designed to shed less,” points out Polartec’s Beattie.
And “the variability between wash loads—volumes, textile and clothing types, additives like detergent, and different kinds of ‘dirt’ to be removed—make consistent, cost-effective standards very complex and time consuming to establish,” says Cleanr’s Moore. Furthermore, additional work needs to be done to minimize the microplastics created in clothes dryers, some of which finds its way into the air.
Nevertheless, most of those involved in creating new regulations and technology to reduce microplastic pollution believe progress can be made. Just using filters on washing machines in the EU and U.S., says Moore, could prevent the equivalent of over 280 million plastic bags from getting into waterways and oceans every year. That’s a lot of plastic.
Microplastics By the Numbers:
* Blue whales swallow 95 pounds of plastic each day (Yale University)
* Humans ingest 5 grams of plastic each week (University of Newcastle, Australia)
* 35 percent of all microplastic pollution comes from textiles (IUCN)
* 176,000 tons of microplastics are released into the environment every year (European Chemicals Agency)
How to Reduce Microplastics
- Run full loads only: rather than running several light loads, which increases the friction than can create microplastic shedding, wait and only run full loads of laundry to reduce abrasion
- Wash with cold water: shorter cycles using cold water can reduce wear and microfiber shedding of clothing
- Wash less often: Not only will washing clothes less often save electricity, but it will also save wear and tear on your clothes and reduce the amount of microplastics they generate.
- Launder with a microfiber device: There are several devices like washing balls and clothes bags that you can put in with the laundry to absorb and trap some of the microplastics before they go down the drain.
- Install an external microplastics filter: Often requiring a professional to install, an aftermarket filter can be installed on the wastewater line of a washer.
(Source: National Environmental Education Foundation)