Wash clothes on a quicker, cooler cycle to reduce environmental damage, says study

Sarah Young
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Washing clothes on shorter, cooler cycles could help reduce environmental damage, new research suggests.

Scientists from Leeds University conducted a series of tests to discover how laundering clothing affects fading and the release of microfibres – tiny strands that are are shed every time we wash clothes.

Microfibres contain materials such as nylon, polyester and acrylic, and can be ingested by shellfish and plankton before travelling up the food chain to be consumed by humans.

The researchers used a combination of both laboratory and real consumer testing using conventional washing machines with typical household loads.

The team connected the waste water hose to a very fine filter allowing them to collect the microfibres released from each cycle and found that a 30-minute cycle at 25 degrees Celcius produced half (52 per cent) as many microfibres as an 85-minute cycle at 40C.

Dr Richard Blackburn, an author of the study and head of the university’s sustainable materials research group, said the study showed that one simple change could help reduce pollution.

“Synthetic microfibres are released every time textiles are washed and account for more than a third of all plastic reaching the ocean,” he said.

“But microfibres from cotton and other natural sources are found in even greater numbers in the sea, and we’re worried about their impact too.”

The research also discovered a number of other benefits to washing clothes on shorter and cooler cycles, including helping garments keep their colour and last longer.

The team found the t-shirts washed in the cooler, quicker cycle lost less colour and that the transfer of dye between items of clothing was also reduced (74 per cent).

Furthermore, washing clothes at 20C rather than 40C saves approximately 66 per cent of the energy used per load, according to the Energy Saving Trust.

Dr Lucy Cotton, lead author of the study from the university’s School of Design, said: “We are increasingly familiar with the environmental threat posed by throwaway fast fashion, but we also know that consumers claim their clothes can lose their fit, softness and colour after fewer than five washes.

“Using shorter, cooler washes is a simple way everyone can make their clothes last longer.”

The scientists did not compare the clothes in the two washing cycles for cleanliness and suggested using detergents designed for low temperatures.

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