Delicate spin produces more microplastics than a cold wash

Researchers has found extra water in the wash increases agitation and plucks away more fragments


Using a delicate wash for everyday laundry might be good for protecting valuable clothes, but it is terrible for the environment, a study has revealed. Researchers has found a single delicate wash produces 1.4million microplastic fragments — 800,000 more than an average wash. The issue lies in the extra water used in this specific cycle which helps protect the clothes.

“Our findings were a surprise,” explained Professor Grant Burgess, a microbiologist who led the research team. If you wash your clothes with a gentle wash cycle, the clothes release far more plastic fibers. These are microplastics, polyester. They are not biodegradable and can accumulate in our environment”.

This large volume if water agitates the fabric and ‘plucks’ away the tiny fragments of material. Due to their tiny size they squeeze through existing filtration systems and pass into the world’s waterways where they remain, and enter into the food chain when swallowed by fish. The health concerns of microplastic is still largely unknown despite an enormous report issued by the World Health Organization recently to shed light on the scourge.

PhD student Max Kelly, working with Procter & Gamble’s Newcastle lab, measured the release of microfibres from polyester clothes from a range of different cycles, temperatures and water volumes.

Counting the fibres released, they found the higher the volume of water the more fibres released, regardless of the speed and abrasive forces of the washing machine. Using a hi-tech camera, they counted 1.4 million fibres from a delicate wash of a polyester garment, 800,000 when a normal cotton wash was used and 600,000 from a cold express programme.

According to the researchers it must be considered that the washing of synthetic articles can release between 500 thousand and 6 million microfibres per wash against the production of more than 42 million tons of synthetic fibers – nylon, polyester and acrylic – every year by the industry of clothing.

The situation worsens in case of delicate washing. “Counter-intuitively – the researcher says – we discovered that ‘delicate’ cycles release more plastic microfibres into the water, and then the environment, than standard cycles. This is because the high volume of water used in a delicate cycle which is supposed to protect sensitive clothing from damage actually ‘plucks’ away more fibres from the material”.

Consumers should make sure they are using the correct cycle for their laundry and avoid washing half loads so there is not a high volume of water to garments. Washing machine manufacturers have developed microfibre filters to catch the mini-pollutants before they are released into the water system while the textile industry has worked on reducing fibre shedding.

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