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Device captures microfibres produced during laundry

Image credit: Ljupco/Dreamstime

A study has found that using fibre-catching devices as part of the laundry process may be able to reduce the amount of microscopic particles entering the marine environment.

Conducted by researchers at the University of Plymouth, the study compared the efficiency of six different devices, ranging from prototypes to commercially available products.

The most successful device reduced the volume of fibres released into wastewater by almost 80 per cent, suggesting that they could have considerable environmental benefits.

However, researchers from the university’s International Marine Litter Research Unit said such devices will only ever be part of any solution to marine pollution.

A recent study at the university showed normal wear and tear when wearing clothes is just as significant a source of microplastics as laundering, while a report produced for Defra in May 2020 highlighted that fitting filters to washing machines could be less effective than changing fabric designs to reduce fibre loss.

The researchers say there is an ongoing need for scientists to collaborate with industry and policymakers to ensure improvements are made right from the design phase through to how clothes are washed.

Some of the microscopic fibers captured by filters during the study into the effectiveness of laundry devices.

Some of the microscopic fibers captured by filters during the study into the effectiveness of laundry devices.

Image credit: University of Plymouth

“Fibres from clothing are among the key sources of microplastics, and companies are inventing ways which claim to reduce the amount of fibres which enter the wastewater,” said research fellow and National Geographic explorer Dr Imogen Napper. 

She added: “We wanted to see how effective they were both in catching fibres but also stopping clothes from shedding them in the first place. Our results show there is a huge variety between the devices available, with some significantly reducing the number of fibres released.”

The scientists washed three different synthetic fabric types (100 per cent polyester, 100 per cent acrylic, and a 60 per cent polyester/40 per cent cotton blend) to represent a typical mixed load. They used a mesh to capture fibres entering wastewater, measuring the mass of particles generated without filters and then with three in-drum devices and three external washing machine filters.

The results showed the most effective device reduced the number of microfibres being released by 78 per cent, while the least effective analysed in this particular study reduced it by 21 per cent.

Dr Imogen Napper loads up a washing machine as part of the study

Dr Imogen Napper loads up a washing machine as part of the study.

Image credit: University of Plymouth

Professor Richard Thompson, co-author, commented: “Too often, the quest for fast fashion and market pressures means that appropriate environmental considerations are being sacrificed. If we are to achieve widespread and lasting change, it is essential for scientists to provide independent evidence that demonstrates the scale of the problem as well as any potential solutions.”

“Some of the devices we tested can undoubtedly reduce the fibres generated through the laundry process, but perhaps the most overarching change would be to design garments to last longer and shed fewer fibres in the first place.”

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