If you’ve ever been inside a shopping mall, you’ll notice the brightly-clad mannequins inside storefronts, the racks of bold clothing, and the affordable price tags. Maybe you’ll even glance inside and see a sale happening as the store clears out its inventory for new trends to roll in. While it’s common knowledge by now that many of these clothes end up in landfills, scientists have recently been interested in the harm these clothes do—not at the end of their usage, but during it.
Within the last few decades, production has sped up for many things, but perhaps one of the most prominent advances in our lives is fast fashion. The idea of fashion being “fast” refers to a number of things—the changes in trend, the production of such garments, as well as the duration of time that clothing is worn for.
While there are many harmful implications of fast fashion, one of these is the synthetic materials fast fashion increasingly relies upon. Polyester, nylon, and acrylic, for example, are heavily processed fossil fuels that are cheap to produce. While recycling the fabric can reduce waste, that does nothing for the problem of microfibers, which are tiny strands of fabric released from clothes. These microfibers are released to the air or to waterways, where they can be ingested by animals and cause the overall health of the ecosystem to decline. Furthermore, the microfibers can end up in us as we eat the animals.
Although microfibers can shed off clothing simply from everyday wear, many point to microfibers shed in the process of washing as a majority of the problem. When clothes are laundered, the churning of the washing machine and the friction from other clothes causes the production of microfibers. In fact, “just a single load of laundry can release up to eighteen million microfibers” according to Dr. Anja Brandon.
To combat this, Assembly Bill 1628 was introduced by California Assembly Member Tine McKinnor. In March 2023, the California State Assembly committee held a hearing for the bill, and it was passed. This would require the installation of microfiber filters with a mesh size smaller than or equal to 100 micrometers on new washing machines sold in California by 2029. The hope is that by collecting microfibers at the source, less of them will make their way into freshwater and the ocean.
The effectiveness of the solution has yet to reach a clear consensus. Some are optimistic about the outcome, but others are skeptical. Initial studies seem to suggest that microfiber filters themselves are effective — capturing up to 87% of microfibers when tested in a lab, but that number seems to drop when tested in homes. One study conducted by the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers found that the filters were only 26% effective. They were also concerned about the increase in energy needed to wash the clothes, leaking that might occur around the filter, and the cleaning that the filter required every few cycles.
The bigger pushback, however, comes from disapproval of the legislature’s focus on washers, arguing that what’s needed is a more comprehensive solution. While there’s limited research on exactly when clothes shed the most microfibers, many theorize that the friction of just wearing the clothes is enough to shed as many microfibers as are produced in the wash. Others suspect that many of the microfibers in our environment are produced in textile mills, as the clothing is being produced.
The biggest problem then, it seems, is the lack of research and technology currently available. To find a comprehensive, effective solution, more studies need to be conducted, and research and development, which already seems to be fully underway, needs to continue.
Although the average citizen cannot pass legislation that revolutionizes the clothing industry, there are a few things they can do to reduce the amount of microfibers their clothing sheds in the wash. Washing clothing less and washing it in cold water has been shown to reduce microfibers, as well as washing in a front-loading washing machine with full loads of laundry to reduce friction. Dryers are also theorized to create microfibers, so one can choose to air dry clothing or install an outdoor lint trap. Natural fibers also shed less than synthetic materials like nylon and polyester, so buying clothing made of cotton, linen, and hemp could also reduce microfibers.
So next time you’re at a mall, remember what the flashy clothing and bright lights don’t show—that these new materials have already shed, and will shed, microfibers into our waterways and environment. Although we are not all politicians, we can and should each do our part to be mindful of the earth—it’s the only one we have.
Bill Tracking in California - AB 1628 (2023-2024 Legislative Session) - FastDemocracy. https://fastdemocracy.com/bill-search/ca/2023-2024/bills/CAB00030371/. Accessed 23 July 2023.
“California AB1628 | 2023-2024 | Regular Session.” LegiScan, https://legiscan.com/CA/text/AB1628/id/2831767. Accessed 23 July 2023.
Erdle, Lisa M., et al. “Washing Machine Filters Reduce Microfiber Emissions: Evidence From a Community-Scale Pilot in Parry Sound, Ontario.” Frontiers in Marine Science, vol. 8, 2021. Frontiers, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2021.777865.
Nieman, Bob. California Bill Would Require Microfiber Filters on Washers - PlanetLaundry. 31 Mar. 2023, https://planetlaundry.com/california-bill-would-require-microfiber-filters-on-washers/.
Rahim, Saqib. “How Do You Tackle Microplastics? Start with Your Washing Machine.” Grist, 19 Apr. 2023, https://grist.org/technology/how-do-you-tackle-microplastics-start-with-your-washing-machine/.
Reducing Laundry Microfibers (U.S. National Park Service). https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/laundry_microplastics.htm. Accessed 23 July 2023.
“What Is Fast Fashion and Why Is It a Problem?” Ethical Consumer, 5 Sept. 2019, https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/fashion-clothing/what-fast-fashion-why-it-problem.