Paul D. Blanc M.D., M.S.P.H.

Household Hazards

Agitating for the Environment

Is your washing machine part of the problem?

Posted Apr 23, 2017

One place to take on global environmental stewardship may be your own laundry room. Remarkably, the spotlight now is not on detergents or bleach, but rather on the apparel itself, agitating away in the bowels of the machine.   

The corporate entity out in front on this story is the outdoor apparel wear producer Patagonia. In a February 3, 2017 press release, the company provides a background summary of a problem that has been starting to gain noticeable traction in environmental circles. Microfiber pollution also referred to, somewhat confusingly as microplastic pollution, describes a phenomenon in which minute fibers can be detected in the innards of a wide range of aquatic animal species, small and big.

Patagonia has been caught in the microfiber cross-hairs for two big, intersecting reasons: 1. A substantive subset of the fibers found in the environment are identifiable as being polyester and 2. Machine washing microfiber polyester fleece releases beaucoup microfibers. A group at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, at the University of California Santa Barbara, just up the coast from Patagonia’s Ventura headquarters, quantified this effect in a study underwritten by the manufacturer and published the journal Environmental Science and Technology this past September ("Microfiber Masses Recovered from Conventional Machine Washing of New or Aged Garments"). Patagonia supplied the fleece jackets, four of their own and one knock-off, providing new and mechanically “aged” garments for testing. These fleeces all gave up a lot of fibers, although the effect was greatest with top loading as opposed to front-loading machines Wash trials were conducted with a top-load and side-load models (Whirlpool and Samsung, respectively). Although the research authors do not state who supplied their laundry equipment, they do state that the washing was carried out in Ventura, California.    

The environmental issue at hand is, what happens to these microfibers after their washing machine liberation? The answer is that barring some other intervention, they go right down the drain. Tiny as they are, the microfibers efficiently bypass standard water treatment filtration, going right out to sea. When the nanoparticles find Nemo, the potential adverse effects remain an open question.

Patagonia has built on the platform of the research that it funded to come up with a few interventions. One action is promoting “at cost” a filter bag, charmingly named “Guppy Friend” in which to wash to one’s fleece. It is not entirely clear how this helps, in the final analysis. Apparently the eco-conscious consumer takes the microfiber waste out of the bag and puts that in the garbage. The unmentioned catch in this promo: landfill is another major source of microfiber pollution. Patagonia also emphasizes front-load washers and, not surprisingly perhaps, sticking with its brand rather than knock-offs because, “Garments of a higher quality shed less in the wash than low-quality synthetic products, illustrating the importance for manufacturers and consumers alike to invest in gear built to last.”    

The whole issue of new versus aged polyester fleece is by no means settled. Another study on this topic also was published in 2016, this one carried out under the aegis of the National Institute of Chemistry in Ljubljana, Slovenia, which quite a long way from Ventura . These investigators used a front loading Bosch to wash red polyester fleece blankets (red so that the fibers were easy to spot but actually, based on a photo included in supplemental material for the published article, the blankets were more of a hot pink/fuchsia – thus the methodology certainly seemed solid on that spotting the fibers rationale). More to the point, the new blankets released more fibers with initial as opposed to subsequent washes, reaching a plateau. On the other hand, tumble drying released more than three-fold as many fibers as did washing. This may tie into the findings of a French study suggesting that fibers settling out of air pollution may be another important contributor to overall microfiber aquatic contamination.  

Polyester fleece is not the sole petroleum-based human-made actor in this story. Nylon and related polyamides are clearly involved. The presence and source of cellulose-based fibers, as opposed to synthetic petrochemical polymers, is more complex. The former can be “regenerated” cellulose (otherwise known as rayon or viscose) or natural cellulose fibers such as cotton, linen, or hemp. It turns out that the slight differences in the crystalline structures of regenerated versus natural cellulose microfibers can be distinguished one from another, if you just happen to have handy a Fourier transform infrared transmission spectroscopy device as well as access to an extensive spectral library for the comparison of emissions.

Specifics of these methods, in crushing detail, are available for the intrepid scholar, in an extensive report that appeared in Applied Spectroscopy. Or you could forgo this heavy read and simply wrap yourself up in a bright pink fleece security blanket and wait for the EPA to figure this one out. But then again, who needs regulatory science when we can access corporate webpages for all the information that we need?       

About the Author

Paul D. Blanc, M.D., M.S.P.H., is a professor of medicine and the endowed chair in Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University of California San Francisco.

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