Quirks and Quarks

Your laundry and plastic pollution — which fabrics shed the most microplastics

Hint: You may not love your polar fleece jacket as much after you read this.

Hint: You may not love your polar fleece jacket as much after you read this

Why you might want to think twice about washing your polar fleece: microfibres (Ocean Wise Conservation Association)

Originally published on Nov. 11, 2019.

Warm and fuzzy polar fleece jackets might be one of the best ways to stay warm in chilly Canadian winters, but the environment would be a lot better off if you didn't put them through your laundry's spin cycle.

They're one of the culprits in a new report that describes how different types of clothing materials shed tiny fibres and become one of the most ubiquitous kinds of pollution on the planet: microplastics.

Microfibres shed by synthetic clothing wind up in the environment. (Ocean Wise Conservation Association)

"To put it really simply, everywhere we look on the planet, from the furthest reaches of the Himalayas to the Marianas Trench, from the Arctic waters of Canada down to Antarctica, from zooplankton, plankton, to fish to birds to marine mammals, we're finding microplastics," said Peter Ross, the vice-president of research at Ocean Wise, and an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Victoria.

It turns out every time you wash your clothes, they release tiny fibres into the wastewater that goes into streams, lakes, oceans and marine organisms. Wastewater treatment systems can capture most of these fibres, but a large volume still escapes. If those fibres are synthetic, like nylon or the polyester in fleece garments, they enter ecosystems and stay for very long times.

Home laundry releases massive amounts of microfibres into the environment every year. (Ocean Wise Conservation Association)

Ross's organization teamed up with industry, companies like Patagonia and Mountain Equipment Co-op, to get a handle on this problem as it relates to fibres our clothing shed.

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He said the science is showing the microplastics in our environments are dominated by tiny microfibres originating from the washing of textiles, so they decided to look into how much different types of textiles shed. 

Scientists tested 38 types of materials to see how much they shed. (Ocean Wise Conservation Association)

"The first finding, of course, is that every single item shed fibres. And the second finding is that despite the variation we found, even within polyester — the polyester fleece or the fluffy, the warm, the soft, cushy kinds of fabrics — those were the ones that shed the most," said Ross.

A kilogram sample of polyester fleece released as much as 4.5 million fibres in a single wash.

Nylon performance gear-type material didn't shed nearly as much likely due to design features such as the length of fibre and its tighter weave. 

While natural fibres like wool and cotton also shed, those will eventually be broken down, unlike their synthetic counterparts. That said, Ross cautions against ditching synthetic materials because he says it's important to consider the entire footprint of the production process as well as its staying power in the environment. 

Tips on how to reduce the microfibres your clothes shed in the laundry (Ocean Wise Conservation Association)

Produced and written by Sonya Buyting