Lurking in the Laundry: Part 2

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Microplastics under a microscope by GTM NERR (2016) CC BY-NC 2.0 on Flickr, https://flic.kr/p/LFuSy9

Last time, I posted about the issue of microplastic fiber pollution discharged in washing machine wastewater.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention my interest in the topic (as a clothes-wearer, water-drinker and eater-of-food) started with a series on articles on plastic pollution by science writer Lola Gayle at STEAM Register and Science Crush (Read some of them here, here and here. ) Thanks, Lola!

In addition, outdoor retailers like Patagonia and environmental advocacy organizations such as The Story of Stuff have been generating awareness about how wearing and washing synthetic fabrics can contribute to this pollution stream.

Check out some citizen scientists sampling microfibers from Puget Sound aboard the schooner Adventuress:

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Adventuress Microplastics – 090 by Schooner Adventuress (2012) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 on Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/dgunat

But as a science-educator and a concerned citizen, being informed about the problem isn’t enough. I also want to know how to take action. What can we  (both as individuals and society) do to both reduce microplastic pollution and mitigate its effects?

One reader suggested that nudity (ignoring for a moment the issues of frostbite and indecency laws) could solve the problem of washing clothing made from synthetic fabric (It seriously reduces the volume of dirty laundry!) This suggestion would also possibly improve one’s Vitamin D levels by increasing overall skin exposure to sunlight.

Other suggestions have included only purchasing clothing containing natural fibers (i.e. cotton, wool, silk, hemp),  whose fibers will biodegrade more readily when discharged with waste water.

But what if you already own a lot of synthetic-fiber based clothing and want to keep wearing it?  These fibers seem to be in everything, from yoga pants to t-shirts to wool-blend socks.

1. Reducing washing frequency and intensity.

This cat won’t let you wash his fleece!

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Anniversary picture by Eirik Newth (2007) CC BY 2.0, on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/368UCw

Suggestions from Patagonia and researchers at UC-Santa Barbara include washing your fleece outerwear less frequently, and using a front loading washing machine.

Any machine washing will wear down the fiber and cause micro-bits to break off. If you wear your stuff a little schmutzy (as any TEVA educator will attest), you don’t have to wash it as often (ergo, reducing breakage potential in washing machine).

If you use a front loading machine (vs. a top loading machine) it lowers the intensity of the laundry agitation, reducing impact on the fabric and breakage of fibers.
The folks at Plastics Pollution Coalition also add: Washing in cold water (is less tough on the fibers), using liquid detergent instead of powder (ditto) and drying on slower speeds (less impact during tumbling.)

2. Improved filtration of wash water.

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mesh by Eric (2005) CC BY-ND 2.0 on Flickr, https://flic.kr/p/6eJbi

Another strategy is improving filtration of the washing machine water to remove as much of the microfibers as possible before the effluent is released down the drain.
Some filters, like this one, are installed on the washing machine itself to catch microfibers from the water. The filters must be periodically cleaned out and have the microfiber clogs disposed of in the trash. These were originally designed with septic systems in mind, because plastic microfibers don’t break down in a septic system’s biological digestion process and clog up equipment.

If you can’t modify your washing machine, the folks at GuppyFriend have developed a wash bag (like a lingerie bag) that will catch synthetic fibers coming off your clothes. Users put laundry in the bag before putting it in the machine. Then after you remove your laundry, you clean out the bag after each wash and dispose of fibers in the trash. GuppyFriend bags started with a crowdfunding campaign, and do not yet appear to be available to the general public for purchase. Will keep you posted.

3. Bioremediation

Since we’ve been washing synthetic fabrics for awhile, a lot of plastic microfibers have ended up in our bodies of water, as well as in our farm fields (fertilizers made from treated municipal sewage sludge may contain laundry-borne plastic microfibers).   The plastic microfibers are out there in the world.

Some organisms may be adapting to consuming and breaking down plastic fibers in our soil and water. For example, researchers have discovered that mealworms (darkling beetle larvae) appear to be able to eat styrofoam (polystyrene) due the special Exiguobacterium sp. of bacteria that live in their digestive tract.

Other researchers have found a fungus (Pestalotiopsis microspora) that can break down polyurethane plastics.

A team in Japan discovered a species of bacteria, Ideonella sakainesis, in wastewater and sediment samples at a recycling plant. These bacteria can eat a thin film of polyethelene (PET)- the same plastic used in water bottles and polyester fleece- given enough time and the proper temperature.

It is still too early to tell if any of these organisms (or others like them) will be able to tackle the massive amount of plastics humans have dumped into the environment. The fact that these critters exist gives me hope that microfibers may not be floating around forever. However, it is still better to try to keep microplastics out of water in the first place.

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