How Do Your Clothes Pollute the Ocean?

16 July 2017

Lab Chat

Plastic pollution is one of the biggest environmental problems facing the world. It’s destroying marine habitats and seriously harming a diverse range of species in the ocean. But did you know your clothes are contributing to the mess? Clothes are actually made up of tiny plastic fibres which can make their way into the ocean when washed. Read on to see how this happens and how it’s affecting ocean environments around the world.

The science of laundry

Scientists have long been aware of microplastics and their presence in the ocean. What’s less certain, however, is how many are making their way straight from your laundry. To get a better idea, researchers from Plymouth University performed a lab study on ‘the average UK laundry load’.

By washing the clothes and collecting the wastewater, they were able to count the microfibres that would have been washed down the drain and – in time – into the ocean. They performed the study on 6kg loads of different fabric types, to compare the pollution they produce:

  • Polyester-cotton blend – 140,000 fibres
  • Polyester – Nearly 500,000
  • Acrylic – Over 700,000

Damaging the ocean

Shocked by these results? So were the scientists, who were already well aware of the problem. And what’s worse is that once they are washed away, there is nothing stopping them making their way into the ocean. Because these fibres are thinner than a human hair, it’s difficult to filter them out during standard wastewater treatment processes.

It’s not just microfibres. Waterproof clothing adds another layer to the problem – quite literally. Waterproof clothes are treated with perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), which act as a protective layer, pushing away water and other substances. They let air through, providing garments that are waterproof but breathable. Sounds good, right? Wrong. These PFCs are toxic and, when washed away in laundry wastewater, they can get into marine wildlife and cause serious harm.

Working towards a solution

When it comes to solving these problems, there are two routes to choose from. The first is to find a way to filter harmful substances out of the water. Some devices, like the Cora Ball, aim to catch microfibres as you wash your laundry. Methods of removing PFCs from wastewater are also becoming more effective.

Another option is to stop using the fibres and chemicals altogether. Less harmful oil-based solutions have been tested for their efficacy in repelling water. They were found to be just as effective, so it’s just a case of clothes manufacturers to make the change. As for microfibre free clothes, it’s a bit more of a slow burner. Bio-synthetics produced from trees, food waste and even pineapple are becoming gradually more popular, but may take a bit longer to enter the mainstream.

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