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Laundry Day Is the New Front Line in Fashion’s Battle Against Microplastics

A new washing machine Samsung developed with Patagonia raises the question of how fashion can best combat its rampant microfibre pollution problem.
An illustration shows a washer full of foamy bubbles juxtaposed with microplastics floating in the sea.
Samsung's "Less Microfiber Cycle." (Samsung)

Patagonia has jumped on fashion’s collab bandwagon and teamed with a big-name partner on a hot new product. It’s a washing machine, made with Samsung.

The US outdoor retailer and South Korean electronics giant announced last year they would work together on a solution to help combat the scourge of microplastics. Those are the tiny fibres shed — especially in the wash — by items including stretchy yoga wear and Patagonia’s popular polyester fleeces that wind up in oceans, our food, on top of Mt. Everest and even in our blood. Last week at CES, the annual tech bonanza showcasing new innovations, they touted a new washing machine featuring “Less Microfiber” technology.

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

The wash cycle, according to the company, uses what’s essentially a bubble generator to make the water dissolve the detergent and produce a soapy foam that cleans clothes with a minimal amount of abrasion, which is what causes shedding. It also has a microfibre-catching filter that works with other compatible Samsung washers. It enlisted a research laboratory called Ocean Wise Plastics Lab for evaluation and testing.

Laundry machines offer a promising way to reduce microplastic pollution. While other sources also contribute to the problem, such as car tyres that eject tiny fragments of artificial rubber as they careen down the road, synthetic materials are among the main offenders. One 2017 study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature found laundering synthetic textiles to be the biggest source of released microplastics in the main scenario it analysed.

Among those looking to washing machines as a solution are regulators. In France, beginning in 2025 any new washing machine sold will need to be fitted with a microplastic filter. Campaigners have called for a similar measure in the UK — a move supported by some MPs.

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

But is relying on technology to clean up fashion’s microplastics problems the right approach, or should brands — including sustainability champion Patagonia — be reducing the synthetic materials they’re using to begin with?

Washing machines do offer a practical way to deal with the problem. Though wastewater treatment plants can catch most of the microfibres in sewage, some still slip through and the sludge from those plants may be used for other purposes, putting the plastics back into the environment. Arguably a better option is capturing fibres at their source.

In the town of Parry Sound in Ontario, Canada, researchers had 97 households, or about 10 percent of those connected to the town’s wastewater treatment plant, use an aftermarket microfibre filter on their washing machines for two years. They found a significant reduction in microfibres discharged by the treatment facility, leading them to conclude filters on washing machines can be “effective at scale.”

The researchers noted, however, that there may be barriers to using add-on filters, like pipes hidden behind walls and small spaces that don’t leave room for them. They can also be difficult to install, and their effectiveness varies. The researchers suggested having filters built right into washing machines.

But washing clothes isn’t the only issue. Research has found synthetics shed microplastics during regular wear, too.

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

Patagonia is in a particularly tricky position given how useful synthetics are for the jobs required of outdoor gear, like repelling water while insulating the wearer and wicking sweat. The company has been researching microplastics since 2014. Through that work, which has included testing a wide range of virgin and recycled materials in different constructions, it realised it’s not as simple as saying synthetics are all equally bad when it comes to microfibres, or that synthetics are inherently worse than natural materials.

“We saw fabrics like a 10-ounce brushed fleece that shed as little as a [thin] very tightly woven nylon,” Dwyer said. “We had instances where woven fabrics shed more than knit fabrics, and where synthetics shed less than natural materials.”

Deeming natural fibres better because they’re biodegradable can be misleading too. They can also collect in waterways where marine animals ingest them and the finishes used to make them more durable or stain-resistant can slow their breakdown.

Ultimately Patagonia has found that fabrics made with high-quality materials, starting from the pellet or fibre through to the finished fabric, produced by mills with good control over their processes, tended to release fewer microfibres. It tests shedding as part of its routine quality control and has maximum thresholds for fabrics it’s developing. The company partnered with Samsung as a way to come at the problem from a “more holistic angle than just synthetics or plastics or fleece,” according to Dwyer. The hope is to cut down microfibres from anything thrown in the wash.

There are a variety of low-tech options on the market to catch microfibres, too, including special bags or balls you launder clothing in, which Patagonia has also recommended. Inditex, Zara’s parent company, recently launched a new laundry detergent created in partnership with chemical producer BASF that the companies say “may reduce microfiber release by up to 80% depending on fabric type and washing conditions.”

None of these solutions is perfect. But the good thing about solutions is they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Washing machines and laundry bags that keep microfibres out of wastewater can coexist with efforts by fashion brands to reduce the materials that shed most. The best answer probably isn’t one thing but everything.

Further Reading

Brands are pumping out millions of shoes, bags and shirts made with plastic they say was rescued from the world’s oceans and beaches. But the environmental impact is hard to measure and some experts say the industry is doing more harm than good.

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