Dirty laundry: Microplastic pollution from machine and handwashing revealed

If you’re anything like me, garment care instructions which read “handwash only” are to be regarded as more suggestion than hard-and-fast rule.

So, the findings of a study from the American Chemical Society make for somewhat unwelcome news for those already overburdened by laundry*.

The research published in ACS Environmental Science & Technology Water, finds handwashing clothes reduces microplastic pollution and is “environmentally greener”, compared to using a machine.

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Previous research has shown microplastics (tiny plastic particles or fibres smaller than 5mm in diameter) are released when clothes are machine-washed. These can end up in wastewater and the environment.

Last year a report on sustainable textiles from the Monash Sustainable Development Institute noted 35% of microplastic ocean pollution comes from washing textiles.

Yet handwashing, which remains common practice in many parts of the world, has received comparatively little research attention, the paper from the American Chemical Society notes.

To investigate, the research team cleaned 15 x 15cm fabric swatches of 100% polyester knit and a 95% polyester/5% spandex blend. They used different methods of hand washing in a stainless steel basin and machine washing in a top-loader. The washing and rinsing liquid was collected, filtered, dried and photographed.

When washed by hand, the polyester fabric released 1,853 microplastic pieces on average. This was far fewer than the 23,723 microplastic pieces released when the same fabric was machine washed.

The size of microplastic fibres released in handwashing was longer on average (258 μm) than machine-washing (155 μm). One micrometre (μm) is equivalent to 0.001 millimetres.

While adding detergent, pre-soaking and using a washboard increased the quantity of microplastics released during handwashing, the amount remained less than using a machine.

The study shows the release of microplastic fibres decreases over sequential wash cycles for both machine and hand washing. In contrast, altering the temperature, detergent type, wash time, and amount of water for handwashing had little impact on microplastic pollution.

Read more: What is fast fashion – and what role do consumers have to play in it?

Watch: Seven steps to sustainable fashion

The wash up?

Australia’s National Plastics Plan provides for an industry-led phase in of microfibre filters in new residential and commercial washing machines by 2030.

Until then, if you’re not down for handwashing clothes, Vogue UK suggests washing clothes less often might the simplest way for consumers to reduce microplastics pollution.

*Research still shows clothes washing is a gendered task, with women spending twice as much time on household tasks like washing clothes as men (12.8 hours and 6.3 hours respectively according to the latest HILDA survey).

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