Here's how you can clean your clothes—especially those made with synthetic fibers—without creating more pollution in the ocean.

You may be taking extra care to avoid ruining delicate clothing items in the wash, but your laundry machine's "delicate" wash cycle may be anything but for your local water municipality. According to a new study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, delicate wash cycles can actually force more plastic microfibers into water sources than standard washing cycles. The key difference between delicate washes and standard washes in most laundry machines, according to the study, is the amount of water used to wash clothes; delicate cycles can use twice as much water as a standard cycle. 

Researchers at Newcastle University, a public research university in England, suggest that clothes cleaned in a delicate wash cycle can release 800,000 more microfibers than a regular wash because the weight of extra water often forces them out. "Our findings were a surprise," Professor Grant Burgess, a marine microbiologist at Newcastle University, said in a university press release. "You would expect delicate washes to protect clothes and lead to less microfibers being released, but our careful studies showed that in fact it was the opposite… If you wash your clothes on a delicate wash cycle, the clothes release far more plastic [fibers]. These are microplastics, made from polyester. They are not biodegradable and can build up in our environment.”

Laundry Machine in Home
Credit: Getty / PeopleImages

The study notes that the clothing industry produces more than 42 million tons of synthetic fibers every year, 80 percent of which are used in polyester-based clothing items. At-home laundry machines often lack the extensive filters that can adequately remove microplastics from wastewater, which means that these tiny fibers are eventually carried out to sea. Scientists say these particles are now ubiquitous in the environment—from deep waters in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans to the pristine beaches of Australia

The fibers may be particularly dangerous for marine wildlife, which has impacted much of the food chain overall. "We have found microplastics in most of the marine animals we study, including turtles, seals, and dolphins. Microfibers are the type of microplastics we find most frequently,"  Professor Tamara Galloway, an ecotoxicologist at the University of Exeter, told The Guardian. "Whilst we can’t say for sure what the health impacts of ingesting microfibers from textiles might be, minimizing exposure has got to be a high priority for protecting the marine environment and the food chain.”

You might be able to do your part to cut down on plastic pollution by simply using less water to wash clothes. As part of the study, researchers washed polyester t-shirts in lab settings as well as real washing machines at a Proctor & Gamble research center; on both accounts, using less water (no matter how aggressive the cycle may be) proved to release less fibers into the waste water.

Comments (3)

Martha Stewart Member
January 11, 2021
It seems odd that delicate setting would be worse. It seems like the stronger settings would be worse.
Martha Stewart Member
April 11, 2020
LOL really? spare me!
Martha Stewart Member
October 23, 2019
Newer washing machines have a load sensing feature that adjusts the amount of water based on the weight of the load.