How washing machines could help fight plastic pollution

Earns Whirlpool
Posted at 8:54 AM, Jan 20, 2022

Microplastics are all around us.

The tiny particles are smaller than a fingernail.

Research is still in its early phase. Scientists are trying to determine what impact these particles have on humans and other wildlife, if any.

"It's unsurprising because plastic is in everything," said Timnit Kefela, a Ph.D. candidate who studies plastic particles at the University of California-Santa Barbara. "Microplastics are very diverse in terms of what's out there. They could be fragments. They could be fibers. They could be spheres. And they are everywhere. They've been found in the atmosphere, they've been found in soils, they've been found in stormwater, and they've been found in our wastewater."

Kefela's research focuses, in part, on ways to keep microplastic particles out of water and soil.

One of the biggest problems is found in almost every American household: The washing machine. Tiny fibers are shed from your clothes, bed sheets, or other garments every time you wash a load of laundry. Those particles often end up in our waterways.

"They have been found in our drinking water," Kefela said. "It's still unclear what the human health impacts may be."

In early January, Samsung announced it would partner with Patagonia to solve the problem.

The companies announced a new line of washing machines that will filter out microplastics before entering the water system.

"We're in business to save our home planet," said Vincent Staley, Director of Patagonia Philosophy, in a video statement at the time of the announcement. The companies have not set a release date for the washing machines, but it is expected sometime in 2022.

Kefela said the new products from Samsung and Patagonia are building on recent research about filtration power.

"There was a study at the University of Toronto," Kefela said. "They installed after-market washing machine filters in a small town. They noticed that they managed to filter out quite a bit of microfiber. There was a significant reduction of the number of microfibers that would be entering, say, a water body that's nearby."

Kefela called the new washing machines a step in the right direction.

"We need a multi-tiered solution," she said. " Plastic has become such a big part of our daily lives that it might be very difficult for us to be completely plastic-averse in our world. I'm not going to tell people who have poor water infrastructure not to use bottled water. That would not be fair. That would not make sense. But if we just pay attention to how much we consume, and pay attention to where it might end up after we let it go, it would be helpful in helping us reduce our use of plastic in everyday life."