Tumble Dryers Can Cause Nearly as Much Microfiber Pollution as Washing Machines

Washing machines have been known to contribute to pollution by releasing microfibers from clothing. The United States Environmental Protection Agency says that microfibers are the most common type of microplastic in the environment and have been found from the seafloor to snow in the Alps. A new study finds that tumble dryers can contribute to this problem just as much as washing machines.

A team of researchers from Northumbria University in the United Kingdom worked with scientists at Procter & Gamble to measure the microfibers released from clothing during a wash cycle and then during a tumble dry session. The findings, published in the journal PLOS ONE, show that the quantity of both is similar.

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Dr. Kelly Sheridan, study co-author and expert in textile fibers at Northumbria University’s Department of Applied Sciences, says, “By measuring microfibers released during the whole laundering process we found that microfiber loss through domestic drying is a huge concern… Our study found that domestic dryers produce comparable quantities of microfibers that could be released to the air as we already see going into our water systems from a standard washing cycle.”

To conduct the study, the team looked at microfibers released from polyester and cotton clothing loads across a variety of North American and European products and washing conditions. They specifically measured what went down the drain, what was caught in the dryer’s lint trap, and what was released into the air from the dryer. In all, more than 1,200 pieces of clothing were used in the research.

While the amount of microfibers released between washing and tumble drying were comparable with certain lint traps, there were a few things that helped minimize the air pollution from dryers. Those included using fabric softeners, dryer sheets, and lint traps with smaller pores. Lint traps also appeared to collect polyester fibers better than they did cotton fibers.

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Dr. Sheridan says, “While many microfibers can be captured in lint filters during drying, if the pore size is too large, a significant amount will be released into the air, comparable to the amount released down the drain in washing.

“It is critical to our understanding of the impact of microfibers on human health and the environment that all the potential pathways for microfiber release, including air, are assessed. Airborne fibers are just as concerning as those present in wastewater.”

The team says their findings should spur appliance manufacturers to produce vented dryers with better fiber filtration systems and to steer production toward dryers without airborne fiber release.

Making changes to minimize microfiber release could make a big difference, as a 2019 study found that in the U.S. and Canada alone, 878 tons of microfibers made it through wastewater treatment to enter the environment.

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If you’d like to help minimize microfiber release, there are things you can do to address the washing machine side of the issue. You can wash clothing less often, only wash full loads, use shorter cold water cycles, and install an external microfiber filter on your washing machine.

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