Synthetic microfibers are just one of many types of microplastic pollution; however, microfibers are one of the most common types of microplastic pollution that we find in the environment.
Where do they come from? There are likely many sources of microfibers to the environment, and they include clothing, furniture, carpeting, and cigarette butts.
They are ubiquitous. We find these tiny fibers in samples from headwater streams, rivers, soils, lakes, sediments, ocean water, the deep-sea, wildlife, arctic sea ice, seafood, drinking water and table salt. In our own samples from the Laurentian Great Lakes, our research lab sometimes find more than 100 microfibers in an individual fish. Such widespread exposure raises concerns about effects to wildlife and human health.
But, there’s good news! There are simple solutions to help reduce the number of microfibers that enter our environment each day. Some of these include changing the way we do our laundry–YEP–our laundry.
When we wash our clothing in the washing machine, little bitty fibers come off into the wash water. This is just like when fibers come off our clothing in the dryer and collect in the lint trap. YES, microfibers are indeed a major component of laundry lint! In the washing machine these fibers exit our homes with wash water and travel to a nearby wastewater treatment plant. There, many of them will settle into the sewage sludge, but some will remain in the final treated wastewater effluent that is released directly into local watersheds, lakes and oceans. Although washing our clothes in washing machines is just one source of microfibers to the environment, we know that it’s a significant source. For example, in the city of Toronto, we estimate as many as 23 to 36 trillion microfibers may be emitted to Lake Ontario watersheds each year!
So, coming back to the solutions—what can we do about it? Our research group wondered the same thing and decided to test multiple mitigation strategies for washing machines to see just how well they captured fibers in the wash, diverting them away from the environment.
What did we find? We found that technologies available on the market today work! Upon washing fleece blankets with and without a Lint LUV-R after-market filter (a, pictured above) or a Cora Ball (b, pictured above), we found a significant reduction in microfibers in washing machine effluent. The after-market filter reduced microfibers in washing machine effluent by 87% and the Cora Ball by 26%.
Our study suggests that these technologies are one effective way to reduce microfiber emissions to the environment. While more studies are needed to understand the contributions of microfibers from other sources and pathways to the environment, we know that washing machines are one pathway for microfibers to reach the environment. Why not help reduce emissions now by changing up your laundry habits today?
For more information, please read our paper published this year in Marine Pollution Bulletin.
Written by Dr. Chelsea Rochman, assistant professor at the University of Toronto and Scientific Advisor to Ocean Conservancy