THE MOST COMMON microplastics in the environment are microfibers – plastic fragments that are like tiny threads or filaments. Microfibers come from many sources, including cigarette butts, fishing nets and ropes, but the biggest source is synthetic fabrics, which constantly shed them.

Textiles shed microfibers while they are manufactured, worn and disposed of, but especially when they are washed. A single wash load can release several million microfibers. Many factors affect how many fibers are released, including fabric type, mechanical action, detergents, temperature and the duration of the wash cycle.

Here are some things to know about reducing microplastic pollution from your washing machine.

Textile microfibers also contain additional chemicals that have been shown to be toxic, such as fabric dyes, ant-wrinkle agents and flame retardants. In addition, contaminants that are present in the water, such as metals and pesticides, can stick to microplastic particles, turning them into a veritable cocktail of contaminants that may be transferred into animals that eat them.

Not all fabrics shed microfibers at the same rate. A loosely woven fabric that feels fluffy such as fleece, sheds more than a tightly woven one. While garments made of natural fibers, such as cotton and wool, would appear to be a solution, unfortunately they also shed microfibers that can pick up pollutants in the environment.

Some textile scientists and manufacturers are developing fabrics that shed less than existing ones, thanks to features such as longer fibers and coatings to reduce shedding. Meanwhile, here are some ways to reduce microfiber shedding from your laundry:

  • Do laundry less often. Washing full loads instead of partial loads reduces release of microfibers because garments are exposed to less friction during the wash cycle.
  • Use cold water, which releases fewer microfibers than hot water.
  • Use less detergent, which increases microfiber release.
  • Use a front-loading washing machine, whose tumbling action produces less microfiber release.
  • Dry laundry on a clothesline. Running clothes in dryers releases additional microfibers into the air from the dryer vent.

Several types of products collect microfibers in the washer before they are released with wastewater. Some are laundry bags made of woven monofilament, a single-polyamide filament that does not disintegrate into fibers. Laundry is washed while enclosed in the bag, which traps microfibers that the garments release.

Another device, the Cora Ball, is a plastic ball with spines topped with soft plastic discs that capture microfibers. It reduces microfibers by about 25% to 30%, but may not be suitable for loose knits because it can snag on threads and damage clothing. By Manny Palomar, PhD (EV Mail April 29-May 5, 2024 issue)