Your Laundry Is More Toxic Than You Think

Conservation photographer Ben Von Wong is drawing attention to a serious pollution threat with these 'Toxic Laundry' photos. (Photo: Ben Von Wong)

If you're like most Americans, you have a closet filled with clothes made from synthetic materials. Fleece jacket? Check. Yoga pants. Yup. That little black dress? Probably. Today, if you're wearing clothes, then you're probably wearing polyester and the plastic that comes with it.

According to Tecnon OrbiChem, a company that analyzes data regarding world chemical use, polyester has been the world's most dominant fiber since around 2007. From 1980 to 2007, the quantity of polyester produced annually increased from 5.8 million tons to 34 million tons. By 2025, that number is expected to almost triple to around 99.8 million tons.

That's a good thing, right? From an environmental perspective, the production of polyester is no more harmful than the production of cotton. Win-win, no?

The truth is that rate of growth isn't something to celebrate. In fact, it's what fueled conservation photographer Ben Von Wong to raise awareness of a problem almost all of us contribute to. But before we tell you more about his colorful work, it helps to understand the problem in more detail.

The problem of plastic microfibers

Toxic laundry campaign
One study estimates that each synthetic garment could produce more than 1,900 microfibers with every wash. (Photo: Ben Von Wong)

Synthetic fibers come with their own set of issues, and they can be found right in your laundry basket. Remember all of those microbeads that we were all worried about a few years ago? You know, those little beads that were popping up in all of our personal care products that turned out to be so small that they were not caught in the filters at water treatment plants and therefore made their way into our oceans where they were mistaken for food by unsuspecting fish?

Well, every time you wash clothes made from synthetic fibers, small microfibers are released that do the exact same thing. Scientists have known for the past few years that these plastic microfibers were becoming a problem in the world's oceans. A 2011 study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology found microfibers on the shorelines of 18 coastal sites worldwide in six continents from the poles to the equator.

"Experiments sampling wastewater from domestic washing machines demonstrated that a single garment can produce >1900 fibers per wash," noted the report. "This suggests that a large proportion of microplastic fibers found in the marine environment may be derived from sewage as a consequence of washing of clothes."

Here's a bit more on the issue from the folks who brought us The Story of Stuff:

Being part of the solution

So what can we do? At this point, we have two choices: Stop wearing clothes or find a way for the microfibers from those clothes to be collected before they make their way into our oceans.

Toxic laundry campaign
The 'Toxic Laundry' campaign is asking washing machine manufacturers to solve the microfiber problem by creating machines with filters than can capture these pollutants before they enter the world's oceans. (Photo: Ben Von Wong)

I don't know about you, but I'm going with option two.

Von Wong is drawing attention to this issue via his recent Toxic Laundry campaign. Through a series of impossible-to-ignore photographs, Von Wong is hoping to encourage washing machine manufacturers to provide a solution by producing machines that capture these microfibers before they enter the water stream.

It may take a while for this idea to catch on and for corporations to stop passing the buck and tackle the issue.

"So far we've sent over 50 emails to a variety of different organizations and none of them have replied with a positive," Von Wong said in an interview with MNN. Washing machine manufacturer Bosch Global did respond initially saying that they were already researching the issue but their feedback indicates that they feel the responsibility lies elsewhere. "A few corporations had no idea what we were talking about but yeah ... it ain't really positive so far," Von Wong added.

In the meantime, there are products such as the Cora Ball and GuppyFriend that you can use to catch microfibers in each load of wash. Don't let your yoga pants turn into poisonous fish food. Let's all do something to #FixToxicLaundry.