Scientists have found that the volume of water used during a delicate wash cycle is the key cause of microfiber pollution in our seas. Our clothes may have benefited from the ‘delicate’ treatment, but the environment? Not so much.  In this post, we’ll look more closely into this discovery and discuss ways to wash our clothes without hurting our planet any further than we already are. It’s time to rethink the delicate cycle.

Due to previous misconceptions and outdated research, most of us believed that a vigorous spinning cycle–also known as machine agitation–led to additional microfibers being released from our washing machines. We would strive for slower and gentle speeds, thinking of the energy consumption and particle shedding that vigorous washing may cause. Recent developments show us that the actual water volume is more harmful and causes plastic particles’ tiniest to shed from our clothing. And our delicate cycle uses a lot more water than we think. 

Researchers at Newcastle University in the UK have recently found that, on average, 800,000 more microfibers are discharged per load from a delicate cycle than from a regular wash setting. This has led to an increase in sea pollution and at a much faster rate than anticipated. How did we not see this coming?

What’s Happening in the Drum?

Scientists measured the microfibers that get shed from polyester and other man-made clothing across different wash cycles and popular brands of washing machines. A high-tech camera was able to detect that 1.4 million fibers get released in a delicate wash cycle. Compared to the 600,000 fibers from a cold express wash and 800,000 from a standard cotton wash, a delicate cycle discharges double the amount or more. This is due to the high volume of water that a delicate cycle uses to provide our sensitive clothing with extra padding and protection in the machine’s drum. 

According to Max Kelly, a Ph.D. student who led the research team, the immense quantity of water used in a delicate cycle plucks away at more fibers from the clothing’s material at lower agitation levels. The higher the water-to-fabric ratio, the higher the rate of microfiber getting released. A delicate cycle uses a combination of lower agitation and a slower spin to extract water from sensitive clothing. This slow spinning process in the drum results in more microfibers’ uprooting and more water usage per garment. 

It’s common for us to underload our washing machines when it comes to gentle clothing and delicate cycles. We don’t want to damage our clothes, and in fact, most of our washing machines come with instructions that tell us to do exactly that—wash fewer sensitive items at a time when using the delicate cycle. This means that more and more particles are getting pumped out into the ocean with each delicate cycle.

Damage Caused by a Delicate Cycle

The microfiber particles of plastic that are harmful to the environment and our oceans are so small that they drain out the back of your washing machine quite easily. And they are so tiny that most water treatment filters and facilities today aren’t able to catch them before they go into the ocean. Experts explain that these tiny fibers that come from synthetics in your delicate cycle remain in the environment for decades at a time. Most times, even longer.

Microbeads were in everyone’s mind a couple of years ago when many countries across the world banned using these beads that were prevalent in cosmetics, toothpaste, face wash, sunscreen, and other scrubs. However, in recent years we have found that most of the harmful microplastics in the ocean come from microfibers. In 2017, it was found that more than 90% of microplastic particles in the Atlantic Ocean are fibers. The weight of all the microfibers emitted from the US and Canada in one year alone adds up to the mass of 10 adult blue whales. The consequences of this are clearly disastrous. 

Once the particles reach the sea, they’re ingested by small fish and animals and eventually get back to us through the inevitable food chain that we’re part of. Not only are we poisoning the environment and marine life, but these microfibers act like a sponge. They expand in the ocean to attract even more harmful pollutants and bacteria that eventually make their way back to us. 

A study by The Ocean Conservancy estimated that there are over 1.4 million trillion microfibers in the ocean today, and the number is increasing every single day. It’s pretty well known that humans now consume hundreds of plastic microfibers with each meal. We’re ultimately putting our own health at risk while attempting to clean our clothes using our washing machine’s delicate cycle. 

Where are these Microfibers Coming From?

Polyester and synthetic fabrics are everywhere. From yoga pants to winter coats, underwear to bedding—polyester accounts for more than 60% of garments sold on shelves across the world today. And due to its relatively cheap cost of production, the number is only increasing. We might think that recycling is a great solution to this, but there’s just one problem. Even if we reuse these plastics and polyesters, every time we run that delicate wash cycle, more tiny particles are shedding into our water system. 

Recycling is good for the environment, but we need to go beyond that. We need to look at cutting down from the source.

Whether you’re washing something new or old does not matter at this point. Your delicate cycle is the problem, and with every wash, microfibers are being shaken off that item and flowing towards the ocean. The older our polyester clothing, the worse the problem can become. So it’s not just a matter of reducing our expenditure and use of polyester. It is also about smart consumption and smarter washing. 

It comes down to this — reduce the use of the delicate cycle on our washing machines and look at what else we can do to save the environment.


What can we do to save the environment and our oceans?

Stop those delicate Cycles

  • Or at least try to minimize how often you use them. Wash synthetic clothing less frequently and for a shorter amount of time. Check if you can customize your machine’s delicate cycle or use a cycle that you can tailor according to your needs. Many fabrics like silk, wool, and polyester don’t really need to be washed on a delicate cycle/ They can be cleaned using other gentle washes. 
  • Try to avoid the delicate wash cycle when using traditional household washing machines and those that are ten years or older, and instead opt for a more standard setting.

Check the Label

  • Does your clothing really need a delicate wash, or are you just doing it out of habit? Most of the time, we forget to check our garments’ labels before throwing it into the wash. Hard-wearing items like gym clothes, bags, upholstery, and jackets don’t need to be delicately handled at all times and can do with a quick yet vigorous wash cycle. 

Consider investing in wash bags like the GuppyFriend that helps protect synthetic clothing and reduces the number of microfibers that enter the ocean when running a delicate cycle. You can remove the fibers from the bag and dispose of them in the trash or recycling if applicable. Tests show that these bags capture 99% of the fibers released during a washing process, even when running the delicate cycle. 

A lint filter for your washing machine will also help retain the microfibers to some extent. Do some research to see which filter is best for your machine.

Always wash full Loads

  • Loading your washing machine to its optimum level will ensure that friction is reduced between the garments. This automatically keeps your sensitive clothing safe, so you don’t need to run the delicate cycle on your machine. The U.S Department of Energy finds that the running of full laundry loads instead of half can save 3,400 gallons of water a year in a typical household. The key is to wash a full load and not overload your machine either, as that could damage it in the long-run. 
  • It is harder for those who live alone to wait long periods between doing a full load, but waiting will save costs and energy in the long run. It is advisable for those in the hospitality industry and those who use public laundromats to wait until they get a full load to run a cycle, even though the washing is done urgently. In fact, they don’t need to use the delicate cycle at all. 

Reconsider the Frequency of Washing

  • Wash synthetic clothing less often, so you automatically use the delicate cycle less regularly too. Consider gently hand-washing your sensitive items when you need to, instead of running a full delicate cycle each time. You can do this in a bucket or in your sink to save on running water as well. This will help extend the life-cycle of your clothing, protect their shape, and, most importantly, reduce the number of microfibers being spun out of a machine’s delicate cycle. 

Use an Appropriate Amount of the Right Detergent

  • Liquid laundry detergents are more gentle on your clothing and scrubs away less of the microfibers during the washing process, even on a delicate cycle. Look at the label for eco-friendly and ‘green’ detergents that will still clean your clothes without harming the environment. Don’t go overboard with the soap. Use it moderately as overusing a detergent can end up with residue getting built up into your clothing as well as in your machine. A lot of harsh detergents will also damage your clothing and your washing machine more quickly.

Wash at a lower Temperature

  • Early this year, researchers at the University of Leeds in the UK found that a cooler wash temperature sheds fewer microfibers from your clothing. Reducing the temperature on your washing cycle will make a big difference to the environment, and you won’t need to use the delicate cycle for these items either. A cool wash will also help your clothes look better for a good length of time and last longer, so it’s a win-win situation. The study states that reducing the temperature from 100 F to 68 F will save almost 68% of energy consumption, reduce CO2 emission, and cut dye release from clothing by up to 74%. 

Shop Better

  • You can reduce the harm to the environment by shopping for natural fabrics like cotton, linen, and wool. Avoid ‘fast fashion’ trends and invest in sustainable garments that can be used for a long time. Trends come and go, but plastic is forever.

    Consider air-drying your Clothes
  • If you live in a moderate climate or have a great summer, think about letting your clothes hang out to dry rather than running them in the dryer or dry cycle. Air-drying reduces the wear and tear of your clothing and is better for the environment as it’s one less use of a carbon-powered machine. You will end up saving costs and saving the environment. 
  • The U.S Fire Administration reports close to 3,000 fires caused by dryer machines every year, and they mostly occur during the winter months. This is a risk to avoid if you can. Clean your machine’s filters and drum regularly using non-abrasive cleaners that won’t harm the environment and your clothing too. Most washing machines have in-built cleaning cycles that you can use instead of the delicate cycle!

New Developments in Washing Machines

It’s time to ditch the delicate cycle to save our seas. Scientists are now urging manufacturers to design washing machines that eliminate the use of harmful delicate cycles or introduce additional filters that catch microfibers before they get expelled out of the machine. Washing machines of the future could reduce our plastic and carbon footprint greatly if built with the environment and our future in mind. Manufacturers are also pushed to relook at energy and water consumption when building ‘green machines’ for the next generation. 

When you’re looking for your next washing machine, consider looking at its efficiency and sustainable qualities and make sure it’s full before running a load. If all goes according to plan, harmful delicate cycles may be a thing of the past. A small change can make a world of difference to the environment.