The microplastics that come out in the wash and into our oceans – and the solutions afoot to help this situation

Paul Hamilton, our technical director, wrote a feature for the July 2022 issue of Laundry and Cleaning Today about the ocean emergency the world is facing and what laundries can do to help turn things around. Here it is in full …

Did you know that new linen sheds plastic in the wash, ending up in our seas and threatening marine life?

Microplastics – particles smaller than 5mm – come from many sources and are part of the wider and well-publicised problem of plastic in our oceans.

It is not just plastic bags and bottles that hurt the turtles and other wildlife we hear so much about in the news.

Microplastics, in particular, easily find their way into animals’ intestines, clogging guts and causing illness and death.

It is estimated that, globally, a million tonnes of plastic particles flow into the oceans each year and 35% of this material comes from washing fabrics in domestic and commercial washing machines.

From polycottons to regenerated textiles, to those woven from synthetic polymer sources, many types of fabric are the source of such pollutants.

This fragmented fibre generation happens at all stages of manufacture, use and service, and is unfortunately hard to avoid as part of normal wear and tear.

However, scientists have recently identified that the vast majority of these microplastics are shed during the first five washes of new linen.

After that, the concentration of these pollutants decreases dramatically. If you are scientifically minded, you might like to read about this most urgent situation – part of what the Marine Conservation Society and other campaigners call our ‘ocean emergency’ – in full, in the `Textile Research Journal’.

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.

The researchers based with the University of Leeds 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.

The scientists’ findings demonstrate this very particular impact of buying and washing new linen – aside from the toll we already appreciate, in terms of the amount of carbon and water usage associated with textile manufacture. (That’s 8kg carbon per 1kg linen to be precise.)

Separately, scientists are currently looking for ways to stop fabric from shedding so much plastic – a project that Regenex is actively involved in, as part of our commitment to collaboration on environmental research projects with leading academics – but solutions are yet to be reached.

In the meantime, what can contract laundry groups, eager to minimise their impact on the environment, take from this new knowledge, that washing new linen causes the most harm?

Rather than simply despairing about the knock-on effects of their operations, we at Regenex feel that laundries are in a position of power – with the ability to make good choices that will have a positive effect on those beleaguered seas.

Top of that list has to be limiting the amount of new linen purchased and taking care to make the most of all items in their inventory.

CLGs typically spend 10% of their turnover on top-up stock, so eco-conscious laundry owners and managers could and should be thinking, how can I reduce this and develop thriftier habits?

There are other factors, of course, that would make such an attitude a ‘no brainer’ – such as the continuing disruption of markets, meaning the reliable delivery of the desired stock at the right time is not a given, and the rising prices of both linen and shipping.

Cutting back on orders of new linen is a good way to help the environment and save money simultaneously and many laundries are already doing this.

Moreover, around 20 CLGs in the UK and beyond are turning to Regenex to help make the most of every towel, sheet, pillowcase, duvet cover, tablecloth, and staff uniform.

This is not scrimping or penny pinching, this is forward-thinking operators using their power to protect the environment for future generations by honouring each item of linen in their possession, and the carbon and water it took to manufacture it.

Business objectives and doing the right thing by the planet do not always easily align. But when it comes to loving linen longer and saving our seas, everybody wins, including – and especially – the turtles.

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

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