Researchers have investigated a significant source of microplastics that enters wastewaters. Commercial washing machines release hundreds of thousands of plastic microparticles, most of all from a delicate washing program that uses more water.

The gentle wash cycle releases most microplastics from all wash cycles. The microparticles travel to the effluent and potentially from there to ocean waters, according to a new study published in the Environmental Science and Technology journal.

Artifical Fabrics

Clothing made of nylon, polyester or acrylic permits the release of millions of miniature plastic microfibers into wastewater. The fibers are so small that the filter in the machine is unable to hold them.

Our findings were a surprise,” said Grant Burgess, a marine microbiologist who led the research, to the Guardian. “You would expect delicate washes to protect clothes and lead to less microfibers being released, but our careful studies showed that in fact it was the opposite. If you wash your clothes on a delicate wash cycle the clothes release far more plastic fibers. These are microplastics, made from polyester. They are not biodegradable and can build up in our environment.”

The Study Results

Researchers conducted a study on polyester T-shirts under laboratory conditions and then in commercial washing machines with the help of state-of-the-art equipment to monitor the amount of the fibers.

The results were as follows: 600,000 fibers were counted from a cold express program, 800,000 from a normal cotton wash, and a staggering 1,400,000 particles from a delicate polyester garment wash. Delicate cycle consumes twice more as much water as other wash programs, according to scientists from Newcastle University in the UK.

Burgess has described the effect of the amount of water on the release of fibers from clothing: “If the water volume is high, the water will bash the clothes around more than if less water is used. The water forces its way through the clothing and plucks fibers of polyester from the textiles.”

Newcastle University PHD student Max Kelly at the Benton Proctor and Gamble site in Newcastle, views washing machine filters, one with microfibers collected following a delicate wash (left) compared with a filter from a normal wash cycle showing less collected microfibers:

“Reducing the amount of plastic pollution is everyone’s responsibility and often it’s the small changes that make a huge difference,” said Kelly in a Newcastle University statement ” By avoiding high water-volume-to-fabric washes such as the delicate cycles and ensuring full wash loads then we can all do our bit to help reduce the amount of these synthetic fibers being released into the environment.”

This finding will not please scientists who find microplastics everywhere. Micro plastics have been discovered in the gut of crustaceans living 11,000 meters deep, in rain samples, deep in sandy beaches, and in polar snow and ice.

Kelly hopes that the appliance industry will take the necessary steps to develop technologies that use less water and filters that can capture plastic microfibers.

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