Nonprofit journalism dedicated to creating a Human Age we actually want to live in.

Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Dirty Laundry

December 5, 2011

Your nice, clean clothes may be having a surprising effect on ocean pollution. Household washing machines appear to be a major source of so-called “microplastic” pollution—bits of polyester and acrylic smaller than the head of a pin.

Microplastic debris “is accumulating in marine habitats,” Mark Anthony Browne and colleagues report in Environmental Science & Technology. Figuring out exactly where the tiny fibers are coming from, however, takes a bit of sleuthing. Browne’s team analyzed microplastic pollution at 18 sites on six continents, ranging from the poles to the equator. They found more plastic in densely populated areas, and when they conducted forensic studies of polyester and acrylic fibers found in marine mud and sand near sewage outflows, they discovered that the strands matched those found in clothing. Washing a single garment can produce more than 1,900 fibers per wash, and the fibers get flushed out with the wastewater.

The problem, they say, is likely to intensify unless clothing designers and washing-machine engineers “consider the need to reduce the release of fibers into wastewater.” Research is needed, they add, “to develop methods for removing microplastic from sewage.” ❧

–David Malakoff

Browne, M.A. et al. 2011. Accumulation of microplastic on shorelines worldwide: Sources and sinks. Environmental Science & Technology doi:10.1021/es201811s.


What to Read Next