Let’s talk about microplastics

Your closet and dresser drawers are full of plastic – and not the kind from packaging, straws and shopping bags. Some of our favorite fabrics, whether it’s techy workout gear or your fleece winter pullover, can release upwards of 730,000 synthetic particles per wash. When these synthetic fibers end up in our waterways they become a form of microplastic pollution.

Watch OPB’s report on microplastics in Oregon rivers

Microplastics are exactly what they sound like: tiny pieces of plastic that result from the inevitable breakdown of the plastic products around us. As they get smaller and smaller, microplastics become harder to catch, clean up or keep out of our rivers, oceans and marine food webs. If the Great Pacific feels too far removed from your daily life, check out this recent OPB report that found microplastics in the pristine upper Rogue River and estimated that more than 57 million microplastic fibers rode the current of the Willamette through downtown Portland on the day they sampled.

Once microplastics are in our environment, they will get into our bodies. Microplastics are in the fish and shellfish we eat, they’ve been found in our drinking water sources, and studies are exploring to what extent we inhale them from the world around us. One recent analysis estimated the average American ingests or inhales 74,000 to 121,000 pieces of microplastic per year. When they break down into nanoplastics, these particles and fibers can move into our bloodstream, organs and cell tissue.

Considering that the United States population goes through 660 million loads of laundry weekly, your washing machine is a critical tool in the fight against microplastic pollution in Oregon’s environment, in our bodies, and across the globe. Follow these tips to reduce your output of microplastics during the wash cycle:

  • Switch soaps: Using fabric softeners and detergents designed for delicate or synthetic fibers can reduce the number of microplastics released in a wash. Fabric softeners help reduce friction between fibers, i.e. mechanical stress. Be sure to shop for non-toxic products to avoid creating additional health concerns in your home or releasing unnecessary chemicals into our wastewater systems that ultimately end up in rivers and oceans.
  • Adjust your settings: During a washing cycle, clothes undergo mechanical stress from getting tossed around as well as chemical stress from detergents – that’s how clothes get clean. But these processes are also what release microfibers into your wastewater. Avoid using hot water settings and long wash cycles to reduce mechanical stress on your clothes. Washing in cold water will not only release fewer microfibers, but it will also reduce wear and save energy.
  • Wash your clothes less: Rather than washing your clothes after every wear, only wash your clothes when you need to. The average person in the U.S. washes their jeans after only wearing them twice. However, washing your jeans after wearing them 10 times can result in a 77% reduction in your water and climate impact. Washing less often will also make your clothes last longer!

Microplastics are so small, they require a microscope for a vivid image. Photo credit: Todd Sonflieth/ OPB

  • Choose natural fibers: Being mindful of the clothes you buy is also a great way to prevent the release of microplastics in the wash. Shopping for clothing made out of natural fibers such as cotton, wool, and silk, and avoiding synthetic fibers such as polyester and spandex can significantly reduce the amount of microplastics released in the wash. Bonus: natural fibers regulate body temperature better, keeping you warmer in the winter and cooler in summer.

There are some cool products available to capture microplastics before they go into your wastewater, like this microfiber ball that catches microfibers from within your washing machine, and these wash bags that you put your clothes in to capture the fibers as they are released. These products range from $12 to $50. 

Read more coverage of the global plastics crisis from The Guardian. Photo credit: Diego Azubel/ EPA

Every piece of plastic out there will ultimately break down into microscopic pieces of pollution. The plastics and recycling crises are bigger than any one person can tackle alone, which is why Oregon Environmental Council believes systemic environmental challenges must be tackled at an individual and policy level.

While governments, NGOs and scientists around the world work on developing solutions ranging from single-use plastics bans to technologies that capture plastics from the ocean and edible packaging, incorporating these laundry practices into your weekly routine can help keep microplastics out of Oregon’s rivers, ocean beaches and our bloodstreams. 


Zineb Jadi is a Sophomore at Duke University. She is interested in how scientific concepts can influence policy and how scientific development impacts modern society.


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