Laundry Day is the new front line in fashion’s fight against microplastics

Patagonia jumped on the bandwagon and teamed up with a big-name partner for a hot new item. It is a washing machine made in Samsung.

The American outdoor retailer and the South Korean electronics giant announced last year that they would be working together on a solution to help fight the scourge of microplastics. These are the tiny fibers that shed—especially when washing—items like stretchy yoga clothes and Patagonia’s popular polyester fleece that wind up in the oceans, our food, the top of Mt Everest and even our blood. Last week at CES, the annual tech bonanza showcasing new innovations, they unveiled a new washing machine with “Less Microfiber” technology.

“A breakthrough in the fight against microplastics, the Less Microfiber Cycle reduces microplastic emissions by up to 54%,” Samsung said in a release.

According to the company, the wash cycle uses what is essentially a bubble generator for the water to dissolve the detergent and create a soapy lather that cleans clothes with the least amount of abrasion that causes shedding. It also has a microfiber filter that works with other compatible Samsung washing machines. It commissioned a research lab called the Ocean Wise Plastics Lab to do the evaluation and testing.

Washing machines offer a promising way to reduce microplastic pollution. Although other sources contribute to the problem, such as car tires that throw up tiny fragments of synthetic rubber as they drive down the road, synthetic materials are among the main culprits. One 2017 study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature found that the largest source of released microplastics was the washing of synthetic textiles in the main scenario it analyzed.

Among those looking to washing machines as a solution are regulators. In France, from 2025, every new washing machine sold will have to be equipped with a microplastic filter. Campaigners have called for similar measures in the UK – a move supported by some MPs.

Samsung’s new wash cycle is already available in Europe and will soon be launched in South Korea and the US. The filter will be available in Europe in the first half of 2023.

But is relying on technology to tackle fashion’s microplastics problem the right approach, or should brands – including sustainability champion Patagonia – reduce the synthetic materials they use to begin with?

Washing machines offer a practical way to deal with the problem. Although sewage treatment plants can capture most microfibers in wastewater, some still slip through and the sludge from these treatment plants can be used for other purposes, returning the plastic to the environment. Probably a better option is to catch the threads at their source.

In Parry Sound, Ontario, Canada, researchers had 97 households, or about 10 percent of those connected to the city’s wastewater treatment plant, have a microfiber filter on their washing machines for two years. They found a significant reduction in microfibers discharged from processing equipment, leading them to conclude that filters in washing machines can be “efficient at scale.”

However, the researchers noted that there can be obstacles to using additional filters, such as pipes hidden behind walls and small spaces that do not allow room for them. They can also be difficult to install and vary in effectiveness. Researchers have proposed having filters built right into washing machines.

But laundry is not the only problem. Research has found that synthetics shed microplastics even with normal wear.

“Part of my job is to live in that tension,” said Matt Dwyer, head of product impact and innovation at Patagonia. “We’re in business to save the planet, but by making and selling things — and that has an impact — that’s really where I spend time thinking about footprint and mitigation and not letting ‘perfection’ get in the way. that we are making progress.”

Patagonia is in a particularly tricky position given how useful synthetics are for the jobs outdoor gear requires, such as water repellency while insulating the wearer and wicking away sweat. The company has been researching microplastics since 2014. Through this work, which involved testing a wide range of virgin and recycled materials in various constructions, it realized that it is not as simple as saying that all synthetics are equally bad when it comes to microfibres, or that synthetics are inherently inferior to natural materials.

“We’ve seen fabrics like 10-ounce brushed fleece that shed very little [thin] very densely woven nylon,” Dwyer said. “We’ve had cases where wovens shed more than knits and synthetics shed less than natural materials.”

Considering natural fibers as better because they are biodegradable can also be misleading. They can also accumulate in waterways where they are consumed by marine animals, and surface treatments used to make them more durable or stain-resistant can slow their breakdown.

Ultimately, Patagonia found that fabrics made from high-quality materials, from the pellets or fibers to the final fabric, produced by mills with good control over their processes, tended to release less microfibers. It tests for peels as part of its routine quality control and has maximum thresholds for the substances it develops. The company partnered with Samsung to tackle the problem from “a more holistic angle than just synthetics, plastics or fleece,” says Dwyer. The hope is to reduce microfibers from everything that goes in the laundry.

There are a number of low-tech options on the market to capture microfibers, including special bags or balls that you wash your clothes in, which Patagonia also recommended. Inditex, the parent company of Zara, recently launched a new detergent created in collaboration with chemical manufacturer BASF, which the companies say “can reduce microfiber release by up to 80%, depending on fabric type and washing conditions.”

None of these solutions are perfect. But the good thing about solutions is that they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Washing machines and laundry bags that keep microfibers out of wastewater can co-exist with fashion brands’ efforts to reduce the amount of materials they throw away the most. The best answer is probably not one thing, but everything.

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