Microfiber, major problem

Microfibers are getting into our lakes and oceans. With the help of new technology and a little community effort, we may be able to stop them. Featured image source

Reference: Erdle, L. M., Nouri Parto, D., Sweetnam, D., & Rochman, C. M. (2021). Washing machine filters reduce microfiber emissions: evidence from a community-scale pilot in Parry Sound, Ontario. Frontiers in Marine Science, 1703.

You may have heard recent news stories warning you that most of us are unknowingly ingesting a credit card’s worth of microplastics every week. While the specifics of that estimate aren’t quite true, the fact remains that small particles accumulate to problematic levels as a result of our daily routines. Microfibers, barely-visible threads of fabric shed from our clothes, are a huge percentage of this pollution: some estimate that microfibers constitute up to 35% of marine microplastics. These particles are harmful to microorganisms and can bioaccumulate up the food chain, unwittingly ending up on our own dinner plates. They are extremely small– around one fifth the diameter of a human hair– and are difficult to remove from the environment once released.

A significant portion of microfiber pollution comes from municipal treatment systems, which receive all the wastewater from the homes in their community. Doing the laundry causes microfibers to shed from clothing and enter this waste stream, and although municipalities do have filtering capacity, it is rarely enough to stop microfiber pollution at scale. These treatment facilities often convert waste into biosolids, which are applied as fertilizers. Unfortunately, this application is how much of the microfiber waste enters the environment. Catching microfibers at the source– the individual laundry machine– may be the best bet in eliminating this waste pathway, one that researchers explored in a pilot study recently published in Frontiers in Marine Science.

Preventing pollution: the Parry Sound pilot project

To see if microfiber capture at the home level could make a meaningful difference in pollution reduction, researchers installed filters in the washing machines of 97 homes in Parry Sound, Ontario, representing around 10% of the community. Over the next year, they regularly sampled water leaving those homes and at wastewater treatment facilities to see if filters made a difference in the overall scale of pollution leaving the community.

What they found is cause for optimism: microfiber content in the final effluent at the plant decreased by 41% by the end of the study. This change is far greater than expected, although some of the change may be due to their recruitment campaign indirectly raising awareness about the issue, causing more households to make other recommended changes like washing with cold water and using softer detergents. However, the effect of the filters was quite clear. By the end of the study the filters had removed 22 kilograms (nearly 50 pounds) from wastewater, a number that may seem small until you think about just how light the lint in your dryer is.

While the researchers concluded that washing machine filters are effective in reducing microfiber pollution, they discovered limitations. Almost 1 in 5 households lacked the space to mount or access the filter, and the filters themselves may be prohibitively expensive to some (the model used in the study, seen in the photo below, is around $160). The next step may be to encourage local governments to subsidize such installations, or to encourage technological innovations that build filters directly into the machines.

The microfiber filter used in the study. Image source
Where we go from here

A growing sense of “apocalypse fatigue” can make it hard to know what to do about the world’s most pressing environmental issues. It can be disheartening to lower your carbon footprint when our individual impact on the planet is negligible compared to the world’s largest corporations. However, microfiber pollution is one area where both corporations and individuals really can make a difference. These tips from clothing retailer REI are a good start: wash your clothing only when it is dirty, shop second-hand stores to decrease demand for new textiles, and buy longer-lasting clothing when possible. You may also consider advocating for the adoption of microfiber capture systems in your community like the ones found in the Parry Sound study– after all, many consumers already dispose of lint from dryers. Why not also capture it in the wash?

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