The millions of tonnes of plastic in the oceans – and laundries’ power to act

Our technical director Paul Hamilton wrote this feature for Laundry and Cleaning News about new linen and microplastics …

When we talk about plastic in the oceans, we often picture discarded carrier bags and single-use bottles causing danger to marine life.

But that’s only one part of the problem. Microplastics – particles smaller than 5mm – are another significant contributor of this toxic mass, and according to a new report, industrial laundries together with domestic washing machines are the source of 35% of them.

Microplastics 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, and is unfortunately hard to avoid as part of normal wear and tear.

However, the Marine Conservation Society, among many other environmental experts and campaigners, highlight the issue of nothing short of an ocean emergency – with almost a million tonnes of such material now washing into our seas every year.

Though what exactly comes out in the wash has perhaps been an under-explored area of scientific research, a new paper in Textile Research Journal puts the focus on this most urgent of situations.

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 fabrics shed in this way, it might seem to commercial laundry groups there is little they can do to reduce their own impact on the oceans – and that of their customers.

However, a crucial point emphasised in this meticulously researched paper is that the first few washes are the most harmful.

Emissions of microplastics decrease dramatically after five washes – so it is new linen that causes the literal bulk of this problem, which results in an annual million tonnes of plastic particles in our seas.

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.

So, contract laundry groups’ real power to turn this situation around lies in the care they take to make the most of all linen.

In tandem, the laundry sector’s attitude to buying new stock – the worst offending, in terms of microplastic release, of all items loaded into washing machines – is ripe for rethinking.

CLGs typically spend 10% of their turnover on top-up stock, but is it time for those days to be over? Could this report be the catalyst for new ways of thinking, and thriftier habits? Rising cotton prices and the increasing cost of shipping are factors that, too, could accelerate such a mind shift.

In these times, we know that ordering replacement towels, bedding, tableware and workwear in unnecessary quantities is expensive – and currently unpredictable as markets continue to face disruption.

Now we’re increasingly aware that such behaviour is deeply, environmentally unsustainable, and not just because of the carbon emissions – 8kg per 1kg cloth – involved in textile manufacture.

Laundries that are becoming much more prudent and careful with their stock cupboard supplies – including utilising Regenex to remove marks and discoloration to make linen last longer – are calling upon the power they have to limit their contribution to our ocean emergency. This is to be celebrated as exemplary practice.

At Regenex, we can list many good reasons why more than 20 UK laundries already work with us – and the ability to help turn this alarming situation around, and save our seas, has to be among the most compelling.

Email Paul Hamilton about prolonging the life of your linen.

WP Popup