(Blog post updated in July 2022)
During the school year, it seems that I have an ongoing competition with myself to see how long I can last before I have to do another load of laundry, letting my hamper fill up and overflow before I finally muster up the strength to lug it downstairs and run a load or two. For those of us trying to keep our homes plastic-free, laundry can be a tricky task to tackle. Lots of zero waste options for laundry are becoming more available and widespread, but what if I were to tell you that one of the worst plastic pollution problems comes from the laundry room? And no, I’m not talking about plastic jugs of detergent or disposable dryer sheets, but rather the almost invisible problem of microfibers.
According to the WWF, we could be ingesting over 5 grams of microplastics each week-- about the weight of a credit card.
In order to solve this problem, the first step is to figure out where these microplastics are coming from. One of the largest sources is actually our clothing; today, 60% of our clothing is made from synthetic materials, including fleece, polyester, acrylics, and more. When we put clothing made from plastic in the wash, tiny fibers called microfibers wash off the clothes and go down the drain.
The fibers are too small to be caught by the water treatment facilities, so they are released into rivers and water sources until they reach the ocean. The reason why this problem is only just recently being talked about is because these particles are too small to be caught by the nets that typically collect samples of plastic pollution in the water, but just because they’re small doesn’t mean they don’t have a big impact.
When microplastics are floating in the ocean, they act as tiny little sponges that attract pollution, and then they are ingested by wildlife who mistake them for plankton or other microscopic food. Furthermore, microfibers often have additives that can leach into waterways. This has a significant impact on the health of animals and ecosystems, and it also makes our way to us.
Studies have shown that these plastics end up in our bodies when we eat food-- they’re even starting to appear in bottled water.
Not only do microplastics end up in the water during the washing cycle, but when you dry your clothes in the dryer, more fibers are released into the air and you inhale them directly when you open the door. By the way, this also means that you shouldn’t be putting your dryer lint in the compost, since it contains plastic.
Check out this awesome video by The Story of Stuff to learn more about microplastics in our laundry, and some solutions.
So, if you’re working to take plastic out of your laundry routine, there are a few solutions.
The first step is dealing with the clothing we already have. Chances are you own clothing with synthetic fibers, especially if (like me) you wear leggings almost every day. In order to diminish the amount of microplastics that go down the drain after a load of laundry, you can use microfiber “collectors” like the GuppyFriend Washing Bag (a bag to put your clothes in while washing) or even better, the Filtrol filter (this filter is connected to the washing machine drain hose).
Here's how much fiber the GuppyFriend collected after just a few washes of mostly natural fiber clothing:
The next step is changing your buying habits going forwards and only purchasing clothing made from natural fibers, like cotton, sustainable bamboo, or hemp. Try also to opt for clothing that is dyed naturally and doesn’t have chemical additives.
Beyond reducing the amount of microplastics that end up in the air or water, there are other steps you can take to keep your laundry room plastic-free!
If you’re looking to purchase traditional detergent, you can reuse and refill your bottles or jars with bulk options, like our Root & Splendor laundry concentrate, or our Meliora laundry powder and oxygen brightener.
There are also other plastic-free options out there besides traditional liquid or powder detergents, such as laundry soap flakes or bars (we can vouch for these ones and these ones from Marseille, but let us know in the comments if you know of a more local option!). Many people also swear by soap nuts, which are berries of a tree called Chinese Soapberry and contain a natural surfactant. You can read more about what soap nuts are, how to use them, and where to buy them here!
Recently, a new product has emerged, you've probably heard about it: laundry sheets. Unfortunately, this is a typical example of greenwashing, that's why we don't sell these products. These sheets are not plastic free, they are made of a plastic called PVA (or PVOH), polyvinyl alcohol. Although it is possible for PVA to biodegrade in a specific environment, the conditions for proper wastewater processing of PVA simply don’t exist for the vast majority of the US. Over 70% of the time, it runs down our pipes and into our water (or septic) systems unabated, adding more plastic pollution into our environment. Until a certification is available to prove that PVA completely biodegrades in a wastewater treatment plant, we will not recommend and sell products made with it.
The bane of my existence: dryer sheets. These disposable waxy paper sheets not only usually contain super strong synthetic fragrances and always make me sneeze, but they’re so wasteful and unnecessary. Wool dryer balls are a reusable solution that can last for over 1,000 loads! Wool dryer balls shorten your drying time by keeping clothes from clumping together, and they can reduce static and wrinkles. Plus, if you add a few drops of essential oils, they can keep your clothes smelling fresh. If you’re crafty, here’s a way to make your own!
Finally, a great option for saving energy is to simply air dry your clothes.
As long as you don’t have to worry about allergens landing on your clothes, line-drying helps your clothes last longer, and the sun helps whiten and disinfect white linens.
What are your favorite sustainable laundry tips?