Your Washing Machine has a Dirty Secret

The smell of clean clothes pulled from the dryer, may rival that of brewing coffee or freshly baked bread as a “comfort” aroma. Of course that excludes clothes that have been soaked in fabric softener or dried with dryer sheets for that is both a personal and an environmental turnoff subject to an article for another day. Beyond that though, we all want to wear freshly laundered clothes. Most of us wear our clothes only once before tossing them in the wash basket. And more than 60% of the clothing we wear is made from synthetic materials derived from fossil fuels. Aka, it’s made of plastic!

The problem is the wastewater from your washing machine. When you wash synthetic clothes, tiny microfibres are stripped and flushed away with the wash water. They are so small, (about half the size of a red blood cell), that they are not caught in the filters of wastewater treatment plants and end up in oceans and freshwater bodies.

A 2016 study by the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management found that a single fleece jacket can shed up to a quarter million microfibres during a single wash! Scientists estimate that textiles are the largest source of marine microplastic pollution with about 2.2 million tons of microfibers entering the ocean annually. There they are eaten or absorbed by plankton and other microorganisms which in turn are eaten by larger animals, bioaccumulating as they work their way up the food chain.

Microplastics have been found in many places inside the human body including our blood, and lungs, even in breast milk and placenta tissues. The implications of microplastics on human health are not yet well understood. But recent studies in mice and cultured lung tissues demonstrate microfibres can cause disruptions in gut microbiome, tissue inflammation, reduced sperm quality, endocrine disruption such as lower testosterone, and negative impacts on memory and learning.

So what can you do? Here are a few suggestions as researched by Polly Thornham, a BEA and Sierra Club member.

1 – Buy a washing machine with a built-in filter which actually captures the micro plastics.
2 – Demand that all washers have these filters.
3 – Buy only non-synthetic clothing.
4 – Wear our clothes at least twice…. except maybe underwear…. before washing them.
5 – Buy an add-on micro plastic filter for the washing machine waste water.

Polly chose option 5 and purchased a filter from PlanetCare. While the BEA doesn’t endorse specific products here is Polly’s experience with the PlanetCare filter in her own words.

  1. Installation is simple: add the filter and hoses to the exit hose on your washer.
  2. Performance has some issues:
    • the adhesive meant to stick the filter to the side of my washer only lasted hours.
    • the filter tends to leak, though part of that was my fault. I didn’t push it onto the top
      hard enough at first. It still leaks, but not too much. My work- around: hang the filter on the inside of the laundry tub, which fixes both problems above.
    • the filter is supposed to last for 18-20 washes, but I average about 12. Then the filter
      gets too clogged, and the machine stops and leaves the clothes wet. I have to replace
      the filter and run the spin and drain to finish the wash. I have gotten better at judging
      when this will happen, and head it off.
  3. I bought a box of a dozen or so filter replacements, and when I get close to using the last
    one, I will send them back in the same box, to be refurbished. I’ve had the box for many
    months (a year?) now, and still have lots of new filters. I’m only washing for two people.
  4. Apparently, there has been a new Planet Care model put out within the last year, which may
    have addressed the above issues. I am content to continue with mine, now that I’ve learned
    how to use it.
  5. Others may know more about the other brands of filters available. I’d be happy to hear their
Polly Thornham – BEA and Sierra Club member
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