By Lola Gayle

We can’t very well run around stinky or naked, so of course we have to do the laundry on a regular basis. But according to a new study by Plymouth University, washing clothes releases hundreds of thousands of microplastic particles into the environment, especially if you’re washing in warm water at temperatures between 30˚C and 40˚C.

The research, published in Marine Pollution Bulletin, was led by PhD student Imogen Napper in conjunction with Professor Richard Thompson, who is a leading international expert on microplastics and marine debris having worked in the field for more than 20 years.

In the paper, the authors say:

“The quantity of microplastic in the environment is expected to increase over the next few decades, and there are concerns about the potential for it to have harmful effects if ingested. But while the release of tiny fibers as a result of washing textiles has been widely suggested as a potential source, there has been little quantitative research on its relevant importance, or on the factors that might influence such discharges. That was the focus of our research.”

The researchers ran a series of tests using polyester, acrylic and polyester-cotton items. They washed these fabrics in a domestic washing machine using various combinations of detergent and fabric conditioner. Fibers were then then extracted from the water and examined under an electron microscope to determine the typical size and any differences in mass and abundance among treatments.

The research team found that an average washing load of 6kg could release an estimated 137,951 fibers from polyester-cotton blend fabric, 496,030 fibers from polyester and 728,789 from acrylic.

According to Professor Thompson:

“Clearly, what we are not advocating that this research should trigger something similar to the recently announced ban on microbeads. In that case, one of the considerations guiding policy intervention was the lack of clear societal benefit from incorporating microplastic particles into the cosmetics, coupled with concerns about environmental impacts. The societal benefits of textiles are without question and so any voluntary or policy intervention should be directed toward reducing emissions either via changes in textile design or filtration of effluent, or both.”