Father and son loading the washing machine

If you wear much synthetic clothing, you likely create microfiber pollution every time you do the laundry. A type of microplastics, microfibers are plastic fibers smaller than 5 millimeters. When we wash synthetic fabrics, they shed these microfibers, which get washed down the drain with the wastewater, adding to the worldwide problem of microplastic pollution.

The Microplastic Problem

Plastic pollution is all around us, from the highest mountain to the depths of the world’s oceans. While plastic litter is a well-known problem, more people are becoming concerned about microplastic exposure. The universal use of plastics means that microplastics are widespread throughout the environment. Scientists have found them in our food, water, and even the air.

Researchers are still trying to determine the scale of this issue, but these tiny particles really add up. Australian scientists published a study in 2020 estimating that between 9.25 and 15.86 million tons of microplastics can be found on the ocean floor.

There are some obvious ways to prevent microplastics from entering the environment, like not littering. And as we learn more about the problem, we are discovering different ways microplastics enter the environment, such as through the laundry. Let’s explore how we can help keep microplastics from our laundry out of rivers, lakes, and the ocean.

How Does Washing Clothes Cause Microplastic Pollution?

Many clothes and linens contain synthetic fibers, such as fleece, acrylic, and nylon. The friction of the washing machine releases tiny particles into the wash water. Unfortunately, wastewater treatment plants are unable to capture these particles, so they are released into the environment, where they find their way into the ocean or even drinking water sources.

How Can I Reduce the Release of Microfibers From My Laundry?

There are a variety of steps you can take to prevent or reduce this source of pollution.

Don’t Use the Delicate Cycle

Researchers at Newcastle University explored how various washing techniques impact the release of microplastics. The amount of water in a load has a significant impact — and the delicate cycle has a higher volume of water than other settings. They found that washing clothes on delicate releases 800,000 more fibers than a standard wash cycle.

Fill the Washer

Running full loads of laundry also reduces the release of microplastics. In fact, Newcastle University researchers estimate that small loads release twice the microfibers compared to large loads. Likewise, shorter wash cycles, laundering clothes less often, and using cold water are all ways to reduce microfiber release. These methods also save energy.

Get a Laundry Filter or Ball

Although wastewater treatment plants aren’t designed to remove such small particles, there are laundry filters and balls that do. Consumers can buy these products, which help capture the microfibers before the water carries them off. The balls go directly in the washer, while the filters connect with the laundry discharge outlet and require installation. Both the filters and balls need to be cleaned out periodically to remain effective.

Manufacturers say that the filters also help protect septic systems by preventing blockages and premature pump and pipe failures. However, according to studies and user observations, these products vary in their effectiveness at catching microplastics. Here is a sampling of the microfiber laundry solutions currently available.

Filtrol Filter

According to the manufacturer, this product removes 89% of microfibers and retails for $160. Earth911 obtained a promo filter to try out and found it easy to install and use. The unit seems highly durable, and replacement parts are available if needed. The filter needs to be cleaned out periodically or the laundry discharge water will bypass the filter. Filtrol is also working on a commercial filtration system for large machines such as those used in on-premise laundries. Although that version is not yet available, a Filtrol representative informed us that the current model is compatible with smaller commercial washing machines.

Filtrol microfiber filter
Image: Filtrol

MicroPlastics LUV-R Filter

This product removes 87% to 100% of microfibers from the laundry discharge. The filter costs $190, and replacement parts are also available. The Lint Luv-R needs to be cleaned out approximately every two to three loads of laundry, according to the manufacturer.

Lint Luv-r microplastic filter
Image: Lint Luv-R

Cora Ball

Although this is the easiest product to use, it is also the least effective of the three options. It removes approximately 26% of microfibers, according to the University of Toronto. The Cora Ball is made of recycled and recyclable plastic, but many users wonder how effective it really is. However, 26% is a big step in the right direction and is a good option for people who use laundrymats.

Cora Ball
Image: Cora Ball

Minimizing Laundry Microfiber Pollution

While there’s still a lot we don’t know about microplastics, researchers continue to uncover new information. For example, a recent pilot study found that tumble drying synthetic clothing releases even more microfibers into the air than laundering synthetics releases into the water. The study suggests the need for dryer vent filtration systems but until we learn more, you might consider line drying your synthetics.

To reduce microfiber pollution in the wash, any approach mentioned in this article helps and is a good start. If you combine strategies, such as washing large loads in cold water and using a Cora Ball, your positive impact expands.

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.