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It is estimated that synthetic textiles contribute between 200,000 and 500,000 tonnes of microplastics – pieces less than five millimetres in size – to our oceans each year, making them a leading source of global microplastic pollution. And studies have shown that a lot of this shedding happens when textiles are laundered, so how we wash (and dry) our synthetic clothes can make a difference.

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“Basically, all clothing sheds,” says Dr. Shreyas Patankar, a research scientist at the charity Ocean Wise whose work focuses on microfibres and microplastics. But factors such as the material, makeup, construction and design of a garment affect the amount of microfibres that are released during wear and laundry. So while it’s important for industry and government regulators to work on addressing this problem (as Patankar stresses), there are some simple ways that you can reduce your microfibre footprint as an individual.

Shop with care

Patankar suggests starting with not buying any new garments. But if you do need to purchase something new, bear in mind that some clothes will typically shed more than others.

“Nylon fabrics that are often meant for active or outdoor wear shed significantly less than many others, and some of the highest shedding fabrics are fleeces, both polyester and cotton.”

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Typically, fabrics that have been brushed or napped to feel fuzzier and warmer will shed more, because those mechanical treatments tend to break and loosen fibres. As Patankar says: “You can make a perfect fabric that doesn’t shed at all, but is it going to do the thing that you want it to do, which is keep you warm or keep you comfortable?”

Change how you wash

Washing your clothes less often is another way to reduce shedding. When it is laundry day, do fuller loads, using the gentle cycle and cold water. Colder washes have a lower microfibre shed rate compared with hotter washes, Patankar says, and can reduce the amount of microfibres released by as much as 50 to 70 per cent.

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Use a filter

There are also a variety of in-drum laundry filtration solutions, such as washing bags, and in-line solutions, which filter the water that comes out of the washing machine.

“They’re all effective-ish,” Patankar says. “Research has consistently shown that the in-line filters are significantly more effective. They’re 90-plus per cent effective, whereas the in-drum solutions tend to be in the 20- to 70-per-cent range – but they all make a difference.”

Minimize dryer use

Less is known about how much shedding happens when we use a tumble dryer, but it’s likely better to hang items to dry when possible. Studies have shown that dryers can release microfibres, which end up in the air and eventually in waterways.

“There’s some preliminary scientific literature that suggests that it might be as big a problem as the laundry microfibres themselves, but it’s something we are working really hard to get a handle on,” Patankar says.

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