Lurking in the Laundry: Part 1

Or my love affair with synthetic fabric and shed microplastic fibers.

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Clothesline by Protopian Pickle Jar (2013) CC BY-SA 2.0 on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/xh4Qz3

It’s a laundry day again (an occasion usually determined by running out of clean socks and/or underwear). I dutifully sort out my pile of dirty garments into hot, warm and cold washes. Bras and fine fabrics on delicate cycle. Add some bleach to my gunk-stained kitchen towels.

Here is a cute picture of a toddler captivated by a washing machine:

Little boy looking at laundry spinning in front loading machine
Jasper And The Washing Machine by Henry Burrows, (2011) CC BY-SA 2.0 on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/9HEw5k

Normally, my focus is on whether or not the washing machine in my apartment building is being used by another resident. (It’s not – Check!) But today, I’m thinking about washing machine waste water, specifically the laundry fuzz in the water that shakes loose during the washing cycle, and where it ultimately ends up.

This is not the first time I have been concerned about the issue of wastewater treatment.

wp-1487268876446.jpg
Where Does it Go? by PPJ (2015) CC BY-SA 2.0

This is the cover of my 7th grade research paper on wastewater treatment, circa 1994. Found while cleaning out  my childhood bedroom.  The colored things are supposed to be pipes.

Back to laundry. So from my particular washing machine usage, the waste water (which often contains little fuzzy bits of lint that come off of synthetic fabric in the wash) goes to the Downriver Wastewater Treatment Plant, which discharges treated effluent into the Detroit River. The Detroit River continues flowing into Lake Erie, and then Lake Erie water continues to flow throughout the Great Lakes.

That water flowing from my washing machine to River to Great Lakes still contains tiny, tiny particles of plastic fibers shed from the fuzz of my polyester fleece sweaters and other synthetic fabrics. Hoffman & Hittinger model this flow of microplastics into the Great Lakes in the December 2016 Marine Pollution Bulletin. (Note: Not all the microplastics come from washing machine discharge.)

These microscopic plastic fibers might look something like this:

micro-plastic-fiber
Microplastic fibers identified in the marine environment By M.Danny25 (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASnap-40.jpg

The problem with these synthetic microscopic fibers is that they’re … plastic. They’re really, really small, so they are impossible to remove from the water after the fact. They don’t biodegrade in the water (though they might break down into even smaller particles.) These fibers can absorb (and concentrate) other pollutants that are present in the water. And then these plastic fibers get eaten by plankton, and then work their way up the food chain into the bodies of fish and other wildlife, including humans.

The folks at Patagonia determined that fleece microplastic fiber shedding happened in the washing machine no matter how lovingly crafted from recycled-PET soda bottles the fleece was.  However higher quality fabric shed fibers at a lower rate.

As an environmental educator, most of my “outdoor” clothing (i.e. Teva Pants, long underwear, and outer layers, including socks) contain synthetic fibers. Every time I come out of the garden or woods to wash my mud-caked clothes, I’m contributing to this pollution problem.

To be continued…

 

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6 thoughts on “Lurking in the Laundry: Part 1

  1. Interesting that just before clicking on this post, I’d just read this one on the BBC news: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-39001011
    about billions of nurdles washing up on British beaches. Not from laundry, but still, it makes you more thoughtful about where all these tiny pieces of plastic and other synthetic material end up. I’m glad to see that so many companies are making the change to paper based cotton buds, let’s hope more follow suit with other more environmentally sound products.

    Liked by 1 person

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