Most People Want Washing Machines to Come With Microfiber Filters

Survey reveals widespread concern, willingness to pay more for a built-in solution.

clothes in washing machine

Getty Images / Werayuth Tessrimuang / EyeEm

In 2014 an ecologist named Mark Browne realized that plastic microfibers, shed from synthetic clothing, were contaminating shorelines and waterways around the world. His research was described by The Guardian as "the biggest environmental problem you've never heard of." Fast forward seven years and microfiber pollution has become something that most people are not only aware of, but quite concerned about. 

A recent survey of nearly 33,000 people in Europe, Canada, Australia, and the United States set out to determine just what people know and think of this nearly invisible yet pervasive form of pollution. Conducted by PlanetCare, a Slovenian company that produces a microfiber filter that can be added easily to any washing machine, the survey revealed that people are far more aware of their clothing's negative effects than the surveyors had expected.

"The number [of responses] completely exceeded all my expectations," said Mojca Zupan, PlanetCare's founder and CEO, in discussion with Treehugger. "We did it originally to see how high the awareness about the issue is and if people really want filters in their washing machines. To me, it was surprising in a positive way [to see] ... how many people would choose a washing machine with a filter even if it cost more."

More than half (56%) of respondents said they know synthetic clothes shed tiny plastic pieces in the wash and that these can end up polluting rivers, lakes, and oceans. Nearly all (97%) said they would buy a washing machine that came equipped with a microfiber filter, and 96% thought it should be the manufacturer's responsibility to add such filters by default. 

If the option were available, 94% said they'd buy one, though that willingness is, of course, affected by price. From the study results: "85% of survey participants are prepared to pay more for a washing machine that captures microfibers. Of that group, 29% would spend an extra $10-$20 for a washer, 36% are willing to increase their budgets by $20-$50, while 18% of respondents are ready to spend between $50-$100."

The fact that awareness has reached this point is, in Zupan's opinion, proof that reporting coverage of the issue is working. "This shows that journalists, activists, and researchers have done a great job educating people on the ubiquity of microfiber pollution," she said in a press release. 

Producers are showing greater willingness to adopt microfiber filtration systems, partly in response to consumer demand and partly due to regulatory pressure, which is ramping up particularly in Europe. "People have become more informed, and they don't want their appliances to contribute to the environmental burden if they can be easily prevented," Zupan said. 

Do built-in filters seem like a pipe dream? Zupan doesn't think so. She compares it to the installation of catalytic converters on cars. "[Manufacturers] are required to install catalytic converters to reduce the emissions of harmful compounds from cars—even though the converter is not necessary for the car to function. Washers should come with already installed components that reduce negative environmental impact as well."

PlanetCare filters
PlanetCare filters – clean on the left, dirty on the right.

PlanetCare (used with permission) 

Until that regulation is implemented, however, PlanetCare's add-on filter is a decent option. It's based on the idea that stopping microfiber pollution at the washing machine—through which every piece of synthetic clothing must pass at some point—is far more sensible than trying to recapture it once it has escaped into the natural environment. (Read a more in-depth piece about its development here.)

The cartridge, which sits on the outside of the machine, collects up to 90% of a wash load's estimated 1,500,000 microfibers and is good for 20 cycles, after which it's swapped out for a fresh filter and sent back to PlanetCare for collection and cleaning. Once PlanetCare has enough microfiber "sludge" on hand, it plans to add value in the form of creating products that use the fibers, such as washing machine insulation panels or car upholstery.

Awareness is the first step in solving a problem, so this survey offers good news for a planet desperately in need of it. The more people know about microfiber pollution, the more they'll understand its severity—and the greater the push for better design and solutions.