Do washing machines capture microfibers? Before we answer, let's explain how existing filters work in the first place.
Most washing machines have a filter that is typically located behind the small cover in the lower front of the machine. If you have a top loader, also check the backside or follow the user’s manual to locate the filter.
These filters perform an important job. They protect the pump from unwelcomed pieces that might block and damage it. Coins, buttons, collar strips, tissues, pens, hair clips, candy wrappers and lint build-up are your common culprits that pump filters are after.
These "filters" don’t really look like conventional filters but more like a labyrinth where larger pieces can't move through.
Also keep in mind that some top-loading washing machines, especially older models, don’t necessarily have a pump filter, but rather a lint trap. This mesh-shaped component prevents pipes and septic systems from becoming clogged.
Okay, but do washing machines capture microfibers?
You might reasonably expect that in-built filters also stop all kinds of debris - including clothing fibers that can end up polluting the environment once they enter the sewage system.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Existing filters are only good for bigger pieces. They don’t even come close to snagging countless tiny plastic particles that clothes shed while they smash and squeeze in the washer.
A recent report in the journal Nature estimates the number of released microfibers between 640,000 to 1,500,000 per wash. The smaller number would roughly compare to a surface area of a pack of gum. Most of the fibers are thinner than a strand of hair. They are way too small for the poor labyrinth “filter” that catches only coins or buttons.
As a result, microfibers go directly into the sewage system, often bypassing wastewater treatment. Then they end up in our oceans, rivers and soil.
Microfibers are a risk to human health
Microfiber pollution is perhaps the biggest pollution problem most people never heard of. But it demands our full attention. Just consider the fact that synthetics or plastics represent more than 60 percent of global textile fiber production, making microfibers one of the largest sources of microplastics in the environment.
And since fibers are super tiny, they can easily find ways into organisms. Going up the food chain, plastics can then finish on our plates and in our bodies.
A recent study, for example, found microplastics in human placentas. Another research claims that ingested microfibers inhibit the ability of the lungs to repair themselves. Not the most cheerful of topics, but super important. If you want to learn more about the risks of microfiber pollution, check our blog post.
Regulation on the horizon
It all sounds like a super-gloomy predicament but there is some good news. Awareness is gaining momentum and solutions are starting to appear.
More and more consumers are taking individual action (read here what each of us can do to fight microfiber pollution) while applying pressure on regulators to do something. Some countries have already made initial steps towards curbing the fiber emission levels.
France went the farthest so far. As first in the world, they’ve turned the fight against plastic microfiber pollution into a law. As of January 2025, all new washers sold in France will have to include a microfiber filter. The country is expected to avoid around 500 tons of microfibers, Mojca Zupan, PlanetCare's founder and CEO, estimates.
Some other places are following suit – although much more cautiously. California, for instance, has recently passed a bill that would create a one-year pilot program to see how effective microfiber filters actually are. The results of the pilot are expected in 2023.
The UK, The Netherlands and Sweden are all leading active discussions how to efficiently stop microfiber emissions In all cases, the discussions involve a broad group of stakeholders as well as governmental agencies or parliamentarians.
Change happens by raising awareness first
Addressing the issue at the level of washing machine producers, especially, makes a lot of sense. There are only about 30 major washing machine manufacturers in the world, compared to thousands of textile manufacturers.
Mojca believes that the responsibility of the washing machine manufacturers is somewhat similar to car manufacturers. They, too, are required to install converters to reduce the emissions - even though the converter is not needed for a car to function. “Washers should also come with already installed components that reduce pollution” Mojca says.
PlanetCare has been promoting built-in microfiber filters since it founding in 2017. After the initial restraint, producers are now increasingly more interested in adopting microfiber filtering solutions. “They don’t have a lot of choices either. One reason is the regulatory pressure, another one is public awareness. People have become more informed. They don’t want their appliances to contribute to the environmental burdens if it can easily be prevented,” Mojca points out.
Largest survey on microfiber pollution: here's what we learned
But just how aware are people? We wanted to find out so we asked 32,800 consumers from all around the world. The survey, the largest one on microfiber pollution to date, provided clear results.
It showed that 56 percent of respondents are already familiar with microfiber pollution. An overwhelming majority (96 percent) also think that producers are responsible for implementing filtering solutions.
Are washing machines going to be more expensive because of the additional filtering capabilities? Mojca doesn't think so. She should know since PlanetCare is deeply involved in the development of the next generations of filters that will stop fibers released from our homes.
What happens to microfibers after we capture them?
There is one concern, however: the potential after-life of the already captured microfibers. “If we only remove them, the microfibers might first end up in landfills and then later again in the soil and oceans. We must provide a complete solution," Mojca points out.
PlanetCare is, therefore, promoting a closed-loop system that is already used for its retail filters for domestic washing machines (see them here). We run a return-and-reuse service, meaning that we safely remove and store all the microfibers. We then plan to convert them into a useful, long-lasting product - insulation mats, for example.
We are also looking for other sustainable solutions, too. If you have ideas, let us know in the comments or write to us. We would love to hear them. We believe the caught fibers have a great story to tell!