From laundry to the ocean: fixing the microplastics problem in clothes

Dr. Peter Ross, was on the Wall Street Journal’s podcast, The Future of Everything.

Plastic pollution might be on everyone’s mind these days, with discarded fishing nets, beverage cups, bottles, straws and grocery bags encountered along the shores of nations around the world. However, the discovery that plastics break up into smaller and smaller pieces – termed microplastics when smaller than 5mm – has led to a surge in research on the topic. A startling outcome of this scientific journey was the strong footprint of laundry and municipal wastewater effluent on the world’s oceans, in the form of microfibers from laundered clothes.

I spoke with Ariana Aspuru on Wall Street Journal’s podcast, The Future of Everything, about the ‘future of clothes’ in this deep dive into the microfibre pollution problem. My work has played a major role in microplastics research, having led research that discovered widespread distribution of microplastics in the NE Pacific, uptake by zooplankton, presence in wastewater biosolids and effluent, and pervasive distribution through the Arctic Ocean. I also established the Ocean Wise Plastics Lab, a leading facility that teamed up with the retail and textile industry to characterise the loss of microfibres from different types of clothing in washing machines.

This podcast follows the trails of researchers and innovators, as they pursue scientific and engineering solutions to the problem. Clothes made from algae, food waste, and leaves are being sold and worn, but remain costly. Industry and governments are on the case, as they seek to stem the loss of fibres from clothing – and washing machines. France will require all washing machines sold in 2025 to have built-in filters; other jurisdictions are following.

One thing was clear from this podcast: everyone will have to work together if we have a hope of protecting the ocean.

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