Research has looked at the consequences of domestic washing on the aquatic environment

Research has looked at the consequences of domestic washing on the aquatic environment

Plastic and synthetic microfibres from clothing are making their way into the environment and harming aquatic life, research has found, with more than 700,000 fibres being released during each use of a domestic washing machine.

Two studies, released separately by Plymouth University and St Anne's College at the University of Oxford, researched the impact of domestic washing on the aquatic environment.

The first, 'Release of Synthetic Microplastic Plastic Fibres From Domestic Washing Machines', examined the mass, abundance and size of fibres present in waste effluent following washes of synthetic fabrics at standard temperatures of 30°C and 40°C. It found hundreds of thousands of microscopic fibres pass through sewage treatment and into the environment with each domestic wash. 

The research suggests that laundering an average washing load of 6kg could release an estimated 137,951 fibres from polyester-cotton blend fabric, 496,030 fibres from polyester and 728,789 from acrylic. The polyester-cotton blend was consistently found to shed fewer fibres than both the other fabric types, regardless of the differing treatments. However, the addition of bio-detergents or conditioners resulted in the release of more fibres.

"We are not advocating that this research should trigger something similar to the recently announced ban on microbeads," says Professor Thompson, who leads the International Marine Litter Research Unit at Plymouth University. "In that case, one of the considerations guiding policy intervention was the lack of clear societal benefit from incorporating microplastic particles into the cosmetics, coupled with concerns about environmental impacts. The societal benefits of textiles are without question and so any voluntary or policy intervention should be directed toward reducing emissions either via changes in textile design or filtration of effluent, or both."

Last month, the UK government called for a ban on plastic microbeads in cosmetic products to be enforced by 2017.

Researchers at Oxford University, meanwhile, found plastic microfibres inside creatures including hermit crabs, squat lobsters and sea cucumbers at depths of between 300m and 1800m in the mid-Atlantic and south-west Indian Ocean.

Researchers say this is the first time microplastics – entering the sea via the washing of clothes made from synthetic fibres – have been shown to be ingested by animals at such depth.

"An important aim of this research expedition was to collect microplastics from sediments in the deep ocean – and we found lots of them," says Dr Michelle Taylor of Oxford University's Department of Zoology and lead author of the study. "We found plastic microfibres inside a wide range of animals. It's the first evidence that deep-sea animals are ingesting these microfibres.

"What's particularly alarming is that these microplastics were found in the deep ocean, thousands of miles away from land-based sources of pollution."

Microplastics are generally defined as particles under 5mm in length. Among the plastics found inside deep-sea animals in the Oxford research were polyester, nylon and acrylic.

"While we can't say for sure what the source of these microplastics is, it's possible they could have entered the ocean from synthetic clothing, carpet cleaning or fishing nets – there are so many of these plastics out there," says Taylor. "There has been no research into the potential effects on deep-sea creatures of ingesting plastics. But, given the impact on other animals, it's likely to be bad for their health and survival."

According to Plymouth University, the quantity of microplastic in the environment is expected to increase over the next few decades, and there are concerns about its potentially harmful effects if ingested.

However, the university's researchers note: "While the release of tiny fibres as a result of washing textiles has been widely suggested as a potential source, there has been little quantitative research on its relevant importance, or on the factors that might influence such discharges."