Why being clean isn’t necessarily always green.

There’s nothing like getting back to the daily commute on the tube at rush hour to teach us about the personal hygiene of those around us. But this isn’t an article about my experience of the Northern Line last week, nor is it going to be about why we should save water and shower less. Instead, it’s a brief look at how washing our clothes might be harming our sweet Mother Earth (and what we can do about it).

Doing laundry is both water and energy intensive – but I feel like that’s common knowledge at this stage, so let’s instead focus on the lesser-known impact of microfibres. I’m sure you’ve all seen the videos circulating of seafood being pulled apart under a microscope and all the dramatic shards of plastic that are stuck inside them (it’s estimated that people may consume up to 52,000 plastic particles per year, with seafood being a major contributing source). Now whilst this can’t all be attributed to washing your clothes (not when currently one-third of plastic waste ends up in nature), even the most diligent of recyclers among us might not know the impact that their washing has on releasing these microplastics and damaging our planet. Let me enlighten you.

 

What are microfibres, and where do they come from?

The textiles that make up your clothes are made of long individual tendrils of fibre that are woven together, some more tightly than others. When you chuck them in the washing machine, the hot water plus the friction and abrasion of the cycle, combined with the detergents causes those long filaments to break apart and shed. These microscopic fragments (up to 4,500 per gram of clothing) then travel from your washing machine, into the water system and eventually out to sea where they become part of our ecosystem.

 

An image of microfibres collected.

Image courtesy of Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UCSB via Patagonia

 

Whilst all textiles create microfibres, the microplastics that are shed from garments made from synthetic materials like nylon or polyester (like your favourite Nike gym top) are the worst. These synthetic microfibers are collectively the single biggest source of primary microplastics entering the oceans every year. The equivalent of every single person on earth throwing 15 shopping bags directly into the sea, every year.

Using natural fibres (like cotton or wool) used to be thought of as a solution, but researchers nowadays are questioning whether that’s true. Scientists have found that some natural fibres can persist in the environment for longer than we thought. This is because of the chemical treatments that these fibres go through during manufacturing. In fact, according to Sam Athey (an environmental chemist and PhD candidate at the University of Toronto Rochman Lab), even something labelled 100% natural can contain up to 30% chemical additive by weight, often applied for things like stain resistance, water repellence, fire retardancy and antimicrobial properties… 

So what does this mean for my weekly wash?

We’re all (random stranger on the Northern Line aside) concerned about looking and feeling fresh, and so I’m not going to tell you to ditch the washing machine all together, but there are a few things you can do to help our marine life (and also yourself) for example:

 1) Check your textiles

There’s a common misconception that all clothes need to be washed after every wear, which has led to a culture of over washing our clothes. But not everything needs washing quite as much as we might think. Wool for example has antimicrobial properties that inhibit the growth of microorganisms, as it’s coated in lanolin that’s been secreted by the sebaceous glands to protect the sheep’s skin from infection. It’s also incredibly breathable and absorbs moisture from the skin, leaving you dry and avoiding the build-up of bacteria that you get from synthetic materials. Nice.

Some brands have taken this one step further by developing their own antimicrobial textiles, like Pangaia with their PPRMINT™ fabric - by treating their products with natural, plant-based peppermint oil they neutralise and prevent the growth of odour-causing bacteria meaning you can wear them multiple times before they need to be chucked in the wash.

 

Close up of Pangaia's fabric and material innovation.

Image courtesy of Pangaia.

 

Finally, consider whether your clothes need to be washed at all. Denim for example, actually gets better with age. In fact, the CEO of Levi’s Chip Bergh ruffled some feathers in May 2014 when he announced that he hadn’t washed his jeans for over 10 years… he explained: "If you talk to real denim aficionados, they will all agree you should never put a pair of jeans in the washing machine." There you have it, folks.  

 2) Wash cold, or better yet by hand

Not only does a cold wash reduce the amount of energy needed to do a wash, but the high heat can also damage the textiles and cause even more microfibres to breakaway. Most detergents are designed with enzymes that can start to work in temperatures as low as 15 degrees anyway, so let’s chill out people. Washing by hand is naturally even better – we’re far less aggressive when we wash by hand, use cooler water and spend far less time doing it.

 3) Invest in a Guppyfriend

If you’re reconsidering your washing machine usage you can invest in a Guppyfriend – these are washing bags that you put your clothes in before they go into the washing machine and catch all the microfibres that have been released. Unlike traditional textiles, the Guppyfriend Washing Bags are made of polyamide 6.6, a high-tech material and is particularly tough and resistant. The fabric itself doesn't shed any microplastic fibres because it is made of monofilaments. The only watch out is disposing of these microfilaments after each wash – naturally just rinsing it out under a tap will just release them back into the water system so you’ll need to have a proper disposal plan.  

 

Image of a Guppyfriend bag to reduce microfibre release.

Image courtesy of Guppyfriend.

 

What’s crazy is that a significant amount of change could happen if washing machines included filtration technology to prevent microfibre release into the environment, but today these aren’t readily available in the UK. France recently passed a law that requires microplastic filters in all new washing machines by 2025 – we’d love to see the same thing happen here. If you feel the same way, why don’t you drop your local MP a punchy email or a passive aggressive tweet? Or if you feel super passionate about it you could wear a slogan dress to a well-publicised gala, or even storm a Fashion Week catwalk with a big sign… activism can take many forms in 2021 and we’re so here for it.