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Microplastics risk from washing machines flagged

Plastic particles and microplastics pose a significant risk to marine animals. Fish, as an example, swallow particles, which causes harm. Sometimes the particles can enter the human food chain. There are two classifications of microplastics: primary microplastics, which are manufactured and are a direct result of human material and product use; and secondary microplastics, which are microscopic plastic fragments derived from the breakdown of larger plastic debris. To add to there are microfibers. Microfibers are synthetic fibers finer than one denier or decitex/thread (which is smaller than the diameter of a strand of silk or one-fifth the diameter of a human hair). Many microfibers are made from polyesters, polyamides (like nylon), or a conjugation of polyester, polyamide, and polypropylene (such as Prolen).

A new review by the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology have begun to investigate how microplastics are generated and where they originate from. Already highlighted are microplastics from cosmetic products, like toothpaste, creams, and shower gels (plastic microbeads first appeared in personal care products about fifty years ago, with plastics increasingly replacing natural ingredients). Many of these products contain plastic additives for mechanical cleaning effects. A new area of concern is with the microplastics washed out in the process of washing polymer textile clothing in washing machines. These particles can enter the environment via wastewater.

The Swiss researchers have undertaken a quantitative investigation into the release of microfibers from polyester textiles. Of particular interest are the ways by which washing agents, water temperature, together with the number and length of wash cycles impact upon the release of microfibers.

Previous research has shown each time a typical synthetic jacket made of microfibers is washed, 1.7 grams (0.060 ounces) of microfibers are released from the washing machine (see: “Microfiber Masses Recovered from Conventional Machine Washing of New or Aged Garments”). Most of the microfibers travel to local wastewater treatment plants and an estimated 40 percent can enter into rivers, lakes, and oceans.

READ MORE: Greenpeace ship highlights plastic pollution risk

To follow this earlier study up the Swiss team have assessed the quantity of microfibers released by five different washing programs. The outcome was that fiber release was constant, irrespective of the program used (the length of the program, surprisingly to the researchers, did not have an impact). However, variations with washing agents and detergents affected the quantity of microfibers released when compared with “normal” water. The temperature of the water did not appear to be a factor.

The findings about washing machine concerns are published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. The research paper is headed “A Mechanistic Study to Understand Microfiber Release During Washing.”

In terms of solutions to the microfiber problem, The Guardian reports on a novel solution from Germany. Alexander Nolte and Oliver Spies, co-owners of Langbrett a German retailer that sells surf gear and outdoor apparel hit upon the idea of developing a mesh laundry bag designed to go into the washing machine. The bag is deigned to capture shedding fibers as clothes are tossed and spun, which prevents the fibers from escaping. The bag has been named ‘Guppy Friend’ and it is part of a Kickstarter campaign.

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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