Written by Hayley McKay
Illustrated by Janell Lin
When we think about man-made materials polluting the aquatic environment, microplastics are often overlooked, while plastic bags, bottles and straws receive the most attention. In reality, microplastics wreak havoc on both municipal water treatment facilities and aquatic environments. In recent years, microbeads, often used in cosmetics and detergents have been banned, but they are not the only type of microplastic causing problems. With the rise in synthetic textile use in clothing manufacture, microfibers are also contributing to microplastic levels in the environment.
Microfibers are shed from textiles made from things like nylon, polyester, rayon, acrylic or spandex – all materials synthesized from petroleum products. Unknown to many, these microfibers get released into the environment primarily by washing machine effluent, when clothing made from these textiles is washed. If wastewater is treated in municipal facilities, a lot of the microfibers are removed, however, sludge from the treatment process is often collected and used as an agricultural fertilizer, so the plastics still end up in the environment. Because of this, microfibers are now found in habitats all around the world, and because of their small size, these microplastics are extremely hard to remove.
But this is an issue that can actually be solved. There already exist some washing machine filters claiming to reduce microfiber release into wastewater: @thecoraball and the Lint LUV-R filter. Researchers lead by Chelsea Rochman from the department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at U of T decided to quantify the effectiveness of these mitigation strategies for preventing microfibers from entering the environment.
After rigorous testing with highly controlled experiments, the team found a significant reduction in microfiber count with the use of both the Cora Ball (by 26%) and the Lint LUV-R filter (by 87%).
On top of their efficiency testing, the researchers calculated how much of a reduction in microfiber emissions could be achieved if every household in Toronto (approx. 1.2M) used the Lint LUV-R filter. Assuming between 90,000 and 138,000 microfibers are shed during one load of laundry, and the average Torontonian household does 220 loads of laundry per year, up to 36 trillion microfibers are shed into washing machine water every year! Even if wastewater treatment facilities capture 96% of the microfibers (and don’t redeposit them onto agricultural land), up to 356 billion will still be released directly into lakes and rivers annually!
But, with the implementation of the Lint LUV-R filter, a staggering 309 billion microfibers could be removed annually from water released from Toronto water treatment facilities! If we all get into the habit of using a second lint filter in a washing machine (just like what we already do in a dryer!), we can drastically reduce the emissions of microfibers into the environment. With a bit of awareness and a little effort, we have the potential to make an immediate and impactful difference for our environment.
P.S. – Be sure to check out some of the other available lint filters like @PolyGoneTechnologies or @TheFiltrol
- Hakimi, Navid, et al. “Handheld Skin Printer: in Situ Formation of Planar Biomaterials and Tissues.” Lab on a Chip, vol. 18, no. 10, 2018, pp. 1440–1451., doi:10.1039/c7lc01236e.