Using delicate cycle for everyday laundry can release more microfibres, study says

Support us and go ad-free

Using a delicate cycle for everyday laundry is causing hundreds of thousands of extra microfibres to be released into our water systems and end up in the sea, scientists have found.

Although regular washing cycles cause clothes to be bashed together and create more friction between garments, they use less water than gentler programmes which agitate the garments less, they said.

Researchers at Newcastle University found that it is the volume of water used, rather than the spinning action in the drum, which is the key factor in plucking the tiny plastic particles from man-made material.

Millions of plastic microfibres are shed every time we wash clothes that contain materials such as nylon, polyester and acrylic.

Because these fibres are so small, they drain out of the back of the washing machine and can ultimately enter the marine environment, where they can be ingested by animals and end up in our food chain.

Read on...

Support us and go ad-free

Two years ago, Newcastle University scientists showed for the first time these fibres have now reached the deepest parts of our ocean.

PhD student Max Kelly, working with Procter & Gamble’s Newcastle lab, measured the release of microfibres from polyester clothes from a range of different cycles, temperatures and water volumes.

Counting the fibres released, they found the higher the volume of water the more fibres released, regardless of the speed and abrasive forces of the washing machine.

Using a hi-tech camera, they counted 1.4 million fibres from a delicate wash of a polyester garment, 800,000 when a normal cotton wash was used and 600,000 from a cold express programme.

Kelly said: “Counter-intuitively, we discovered that ‘delicate’ cycles release more plastic microfibres into the water, and then the environment, than standard cycles.

Scientists check clothes in washing machine
Max Kelly (left) and marine microbiologist Professor J Grant Burgess check clothing in a washing machine (Owen Humphreys/PA)

“Previous research has suggested the speed the drum spins at, the number of times it changes spinning direction during a cycle and the length of pauses in the cycle – all known as the machine agitation – is the most important factor in the amount of microfibre released.

“But we have shown here that even at reduced levels of agitation, microfibre release is still greatest with higher water volume-to-fabric ratios.

“This is because the high volume of water used in a delicate cycle which is supposed to protect sensitive clothing from damage actually ‘plucks’ away more fibres from the material.”

Consumers should make sure they are using the correct cycle for their laundry and avoid washing half loads so there is not a high volume of water to garments.

Dr Neil Lant, a research fellow at P&G who worked on the project, said: “People thought quite intuitively that a delicate wash cycle would reduce loss of fibres because the fibres are rubbing against each other less.”

Max Kelly adds segments of material to a laboratory controlled ‘mini’ washing machine
Max Kelly adds segments of material to a laboratory controlled ‘mini’ washing machine (Owen Humphreys/PA)

He said garments from natural fibres such as wool or silk should still be washed on a delicate programme.

Washing machine manufacturers have developed microfibre filters to catch the mini-pollutants before they are released into the water system while the textile industry has worked on reducing fibre shedding.

Marine microbiologist Professor Grant Burgess said it was thought the microfibres can clog the digestive systems of tiny animals that ingest them.

He added: “Some of these fibres can attract pollutants and toxic chemicals which stick on to the fibres.

“They can act as concentrators of other toxic pollutants and act as a carrier of these nasty chemicals.”

The findings have been published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Support us and go ad-free

We need your help to keep speaking the truth

Every story that you have come to us with; each injustice you have asked us to investigate; every campaign we have fought; each of your unheard voices we amplified; we do this for you. We are making a difference on your behalf.

Our fight is your fight. You’ve supported our collective struggle every time you gave us a like; and every time you shared our work across social media. Now we need you to support us with a monthly donation.

We have published nearly 2,000 articles and over 50 films in 2021. And we want to do this and more in 2022 but we don’t have enough money to go on at this pace. So, if you value our work and want us to continue then please join us and be part of The Canary family.

In return, you get:

* Advert free reading experience
* Quarterly group video call with the Editor-in-Chief
* Behind the scenes monthly e-newsletter
* 20% discount in our shop

Almost all of our spending goes to the people who make The Canary’s content. So your contribution directly supports our writers and enables us to continue to do what we do: speaking truth, powered by you. We have weathered many attempts to shut us down and silence our vital opposition to an increasingly fascist government and right-wing mainstream media.

With your help we can continue:

* Holding political and state power to account
* Advocating for the people the system marginalises
* Being a media outlet that upholds the highest standards
* Campaigning on the issues others won’t
* Putting your lives central to everything we do

We are a drop of truth in an ocean of deceit. But we can’t do this without your support. So please, can you help us continue the fight?

The Canary Support us