How laundries have the power to protect marine wildlife from microplastics

Paul Hamilton, our technical director, wrote this feature for Cleaning and Maintenance Magazine. You can see it here on pages 18 and 19 of the October issue.

All commercial laundries are under pressure to reduce their impact on planet Earth – and rightly so – but your company’s good intentions can feel like a drop in the ocean when trying to conserve the world’s resources.

However, laundries with choices to make on matters such as water and energy efficiency as well as detergent and other chemical substances, can make a big difference in the way they bulk process linens.

Moreover, careful selection and care of linen stock, can also have a significant effect on a laundry’s overall environmental performance – and give your sustainability policy some added oomph.

Savvy managers and owners are – or should be – already well aware of the UK’s huge textile waste problem. We’re the fourth largest producer of unwanted fabric in Europe, discarding more than 200,000 tonnes annually.

Much more of this mass is disposed of in landfill or incinerated than is recycled or reused, so it’s clear that, as a nation, we need to do better, before we even think about the environmental impact of the manufacture of new linen routinely ordered as replacement stock.

New research from scientists at the University of Leeds adds another dimension to the compelling case for change. Did you know that the first few washes of linen – whether that be towels, bedding, tableware, or garments – are the most harmful when it comes to shedding microplastics?

When we talk about plastic in the oceans, we often picture carrier bags, bottles, and other items trapping and harming fish and other animals that live in our seas.

However, microplastics – particles smaller than 5mm – are another significant contributor of this toxic mass, routinely ingested by marine life and causing illness and death.

According to a new report, laundries together with households running their everyday wash cycles are the source of 35% of the total.

You might think, where do microplastics come from? Well, they originate from many sources, but many are emitted by textiles – from polycottons to regenerated textiles, and those woven from synthetic polymer sources.

This fragmented fibre generation happens at all stages of manufacture, use, and service. It is part of normal wear and tear and therefore hard to avoid – though researchers are looking for solutions to curb shedding.

As things stand, the Marine Conservation Society, among other campaigners and experts, call the situation in 2022 an ocean emergency. Almost a million tonnes of microplastics are now washing into our seas every year.

Seeking to understand what is happening and why it is an important step on the road to change and improvement, a new paper in the Textile Research Journal puts the focus on the situation.

Fragmented fiber pollution from common textile materials and structures during laundry by Alma V Palacios-Marlin, Abdul Jabbar, and Muhammed Tausif examines the relationship between fibre types and yarn structures on the fragmented fibre release during laundry processes.

If all or most fabrics shed in this way, it might seem to commercial laundries that they cannot do much to help. Yet the research shows that it is new linen undergoing its first few washes that emits the most plastic.

Shedding of microplastics decrease dramatically after five cycles – so it is new linen that causes the bulk of laundries’ contribution to the problem of an annual million tonnes of plastic particles in our seas.

The researchers washed new, dyed, woven textiles under controlled conditions to discover that samples showed a reduction in fragmented fibres shed through repeated laundry cycles.

They concluded that the heaviest concentration of such pollutants were linked with the “mechanical and chemical stresses” in manufacturing, including yarn texturisation.

So, contract laundry groups have considerable power to be a force for good, by developing new ways of making the most of every piece of linen – making it last for as long as possible, to minimise the amount of new stock ordered.

Of course, this can feel easier said than done. In hospitality, guests running suitcase wheels across beds and being less than careful with make-up and false tan can cause marks that do not come out in an ordinary wash. In healthcare, chemicals such as iodine are often an issue.

Historically, condemning blemished line has led laundries to typically spend 10% of their turnover on top-up stock.

However, advances in technology mean much of this can be needless, now that marked or discoloured linen is able to undergo specialist processing and be returned in pristine condition.

Increasing numbers of operators are aware of the development and putting measures in place to make sure pieces that do not pass inspection tests are given another chance to be serviceable once more. Around 20 laundries are working with Regenex, representing a significant year-on-year increase in awareness and take-up.

In summary, becoming more careful, and thrifty, with linen – and saving money as a knock-on effect of this mindset, of course – is a powerful way to help ease the ocean emergency and clean up our seas.

Email Regenex’s technical director, Paul Hamilton, about prolonging the life of your linen.

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