Device fitted to washing machines could stop 80% of microfibres getting into the environment


Microfibres escape from clothes into the environment (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Devices could be fitted to washing machines to slash the release of microfibres into the environment by up to 80 per cent, suggests a new study.

Researchers found that using fibre-catching devices as part of the laundry process can ‘dramatically’ reduce the amount of microscopic particles potentially entering the marine environment.

A study conducted at the University of Plymouth compared the efficiency of six different devices, ranging from prototypes to commercially available products.

The most successful reduced the amount of fibres released into wastewater by almost 80 per cent, suggesting there is ‘considerable’ potential for them to have environmental benefits.

However, researchers from the University’s International Marine Litter Research Unit say they will only ever be part of any solution.

The study showed normal wear and tear when wearing clothes is just as significant a source of microplastics as release from laundering, while a report produced for Defra in May highlighted that fitting filters to washing machines could be less effective than changing fabric designs to reduce fibre loss.

The researchers say there is an ongoing need for scientists to team up with industry and policy makers to ensure improvements are made right from the design phase through to how clothes are washed.

The study, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, was funded by the National Geographic Society and Sky Ocean Rescue.

Study lead author Dr Imogen Napper, a Sky Ocean Rescue Scholar, said: ‘Fibres from clothing are among the key sources of microplastics, and companies are inventing ways which claim to reduce the amount of fibres which enter wastewater.

‘We wanted to see how effective they were both in catching fibres, but also stopping clothes from shedding them in the first place.

‘Our results show there is a huge variety between the devices available, with some significantly reducing the number of fibres released.’

Plastic waste washed up from the sea lays on a beach in Crete, Greece (Credits: Getty Images)

For the research, scientists washed three different synthetic fabric types – 100% polyester, 100% acrylic, and a 60% polyester/40% cotton blend – to represent a typical mixed load.

They used a mesh to capture fibres entering wastewater, measuring the mass of particles generated without filters and then with three in-drum devices and three external washing machine filters.

The results showed the most effective device reduced the quantity of microfibres being released by 78 per cent, while the least effective analysed in this particular study reducing it by 21 per cent.

Co-author Professor Richard Thompson, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit, said: ‘Too often, the quest for fast fashion and market pressures means that appropriate environmental considerations are being sacrificed.

‘If we are to achieve widespread and lasting change, it is essential for scientists to provide the independent evidence that demonstrates the scale of the problem as well as any potential solutions.

‘Some of the devices we tested can undoubtedly reduce the fibres generated through the laundry process, but perhaps the most overarching change would be to design garments to last longer and shed less fibres in the first place.’

The findings were welcomed by the Marine Conservation Society, which recently launched its own Stop Ocean Threads campaign.

Washing machine door with rotating garments inside (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Dr Laura Foster, Head of Clean Seas at the charity, said: ‘This independent research shows clearly that washing machine fitted filters are the most effective method of preventing microfibre loss from washing clothes.

‘We’re urging people to sign our petition which will require the filters, by law, in all washing machines from 2024.

‘Having all washing machines fitted with filters will make a huge impact on the volume of microfibres polluting our ocean from every wash.’

She added: ‘The clothes we have will continue to shed fibres now and in the many years to come, which means that we need to have filters fitted as well as improvements from the fashion industry.’





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