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

Patagonia has jumped on the fashion collaboration bandwagon and teamed up with a well-known partner for a hot new product.

A US outdoor retailer and a South Korean electronics giant announced last year that they would be collaborating on a solution to combat the scourge of microplastics. These are the tiny fibers shed (especially when laundered) by items like our stretchy yoga wear and Patagonia’s popular polyester fleece, and end up in the ocean, our food, the summit of Everest, and even our blood. be wound up to 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 microfiberless cycle reduces microplastic emissions by up to 54%,” Samsung said in a release.

According to the company, the wash cycle essentially uses a foam generator to dissolve detergent in the water and produce soap suds that clean clothes with minimal abrasion that causes shedding. It also features a microfiber catch filter that works with compatible Samsung washers. For evaluation and testing, we enlisted a laboratory called the Ocean Wise Plastics Lab.

Washing machines offer a promising way to reduce microplastic pollution. Synthetic materials are one of the main offenders, although other sources contribute to the problem, such as car tires releasing tiny fragments of man-made rubber as they run on the road. According to International Union for Conservation of Nature, 2017 A study found that washing synthetic fabrics was the largest source of microplastic emissions in the main scenarios analyzed.

Some regulators are looking at washing machines as a solution. From 2025, all new washing machines sold in France must be fitted with microplastic filters. 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 be rolled out in South Korea and the US soon.

But is relying on technology to solve fashion’s microplastics problem the right approach, or should brands, including sustainability champions Patagonia, use less synthetic materials in the first place?

A washing machine offers a practical way to deal with this problem. Wastewater treatment plants are able to trap most of the microfibers in sewage, but some still slip through, and the sludge from these facilities can be used for other purposes, potentially returning plastic to the environment. there is. Perhaps a better option is to capture the fibers at their source.

In the town of Parry Sound, Ontario, Canada, researchers found that 97 households, or about 10% of households connected to the town’s wastewater treatment plant, had used aftermarket microfiber filters in their washing machines for two years. rice field. They found a significant reduction in microfiber emissions from treatment facilities and concluded that washing machine filters were “effective on a large scale.”

However, the researchers say there may be obstacles to using add-on filters, such as pipes hidden behind walls or small spaces with no room for a filter. They can also be difficult to install, and their effectiveness varies. Researchers have proposed building filters into washing machines.

But laundry isn’t the only problem. Studies have shown that synthetic fabrics also shed microplastics during normal wear.

Matt Dwyer, Patagonia’s Head of Product Impact and Innovation, said: “We are in business to save the planet, but by making and selling things, and the things that are made, there is an impact. I spend my time trying not to. of us making progress. ”

Patagonia is in a particularly difficult position given how well synthetics help with functions needed in outdoor gear, such as insulating the wearer, wicking sweat and repelling water. I have done research. Through that research, which involved testing different virgin and recycled materials in different constructions, I realized that it’s not as simple as saying all synthetic materials are equally bad when it comes to microfiber. Synthetic fibers are inherently inferior to natural materials.

“I saw a fabric that looked like a 10 oz brushed fleece. [thin] It’s a very tightly woven nylon,” said Dwyer. “Woven fabrics shed more than knit fabrics, and synthetics shed less than natural fabrics in some cases.”

It can also be misleading to assume that natural fibers are better because they are biodegradable. It can also collect in waterways where marine animals ingest it, and a durable, stain-resistant finish can slow down its decomposition.

Ultimately, Patagonia believes that fabrics made using high-quality materials, from pellets or fibers to finished fabrics, are produced in factories that have good control over the process, resulting in microfiber emissions. As part of our regular quality control, we test shedding and set maximum thresholds for fabrics in development. We partnered with Samsung as a way to approach the problem from a more holistic angle, not just plastics and fleece. The hope is to cut microfibers out of anything thrown in the laundry.

There are a variety of low-tech options on the market for catching microfibers, including special bags and balls for washing clothes that Patagonia also recommends. Launched a new laundry detergent created in partnership with BASF. The company says, “Depending on fabric type and washing conditions, microfiber emissions can be reduced by up to 80%.”

None of these solutions are perfect. But the nice thing about the solutions is that they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Washing machines and laundry bags that keep microfiber out of the wastewater can coexist with fashion brands’ efforts to reduce the materials they shed most.

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