The gentle cycle’s hidden menace: Or why how you do laundry matters to the earth

Micro-plastics in highly unusual places

First it was the tea bags, and now…. the gentle cycle?

Researchers at Newcastle University ran tests with full-scale machines to show that a delicate wash, which uses up to twice as much water as a standard cycle, releases on average 800,000 more microfibres than less water-hungry cycles.

“Our findings were a surprise,” said Prof Grant Burgess, a marine microbiologist who led the research. “You would expect delicate washes to protect clothes and lead to less microfibres being released, but our careful studies showed that in fact it was the opposite.”

Colour me suitably bleached. Assuming bleach adds colours, which, given the state of laundry research, it just might.

Apparently what makes the difference is the amount of water used. The more water, the worse the effect on clothes, as far as microplastics are concerned.

Well, damn. I don’t own my washing machine. It comes with the apartment I rent. It’s a small, apartment-sized stacked unit. It has one setting for water level. Full. I’m stymied.

Are you, like me, wondering where plastics in the clothes come from?

The clothing industry produces more than 42m tonnes of synthetic fibres every year. The vast majority, about 80%, are used to make polyester garments. Previous tests have found that washing synthetic items can release between 500,000 and 6m microfibres per wash.

Because many washing machines lack filters that can remove microplastics from their wastewater, the fibres are carried into water treatment plants and can eventually reach the seas. The particles, which come from a variety of sources, are now ubiquitous in the environment, from the deepest marine trench in the Pacific Ocean to the pristine wilderness of Antarctica. Scientists have found the plastics in organisms at every level of the food chain from plankton to marine mammals.


Washing in small amounts of water (or waiting until I have enough dirty clothes for a full load), then, and not use the delicate cycle. What else?

Thankfully, the New York Times came up with some fine eco-laundry tips, and a few scary stats. U.S. households do on average 300 loads of laundry a year. This amounts to 179 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, equal to the total annual energy use of more than 21 million homes.

They say you should use cold water because “about 90 percent of the energy a washing machine uses goes toward heating water.” For reasons that are explained but that I still don’t understand, using cold water counter-intuitively involves water heating (I know, I know) so if your machine has a “tap cold” setting on it, use that.

Mine does, yay!

Not only will you save money using tap cold water to wash most of your laundry, but you’ll help save the planet, too:

One calculation from the cleaning institute, using Energy Star data, estimated that a household could cut its emissions by 864 pounds of carbon per year by washing four out of five loads in cold water.

Using cold water also apparently – bingo, full circle – helps with the microplastics thing. As for drying the clothes, you already know that, the best way to save on energy and carbon emissions is to air dry as much as possible.

The idea that I was personally dumping microplastics into the environment via my innocent-looking washing machine was bad enough, but this is worse.

Rainfall washes more than 7 trillion pieces of microplastics, much of it tire particles left behind on streets, into San Francisco Bay each year – an amount 300 times greater than what comes from microfibers washing off polyester clothes, microbeads from beauty products and the many other plastics washing down our sinks and sewers.

Also this line: “A scientific review of 52 studies recently concluded that humans on average consume a credit card’s worth of microplastic each week.”

There’s no consensus on whether this is especially dangerous to humans or animals. You wait for studies if you like. Me, I’m going to make renewed efforts to drive less and not use the delicate cycle.

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