The 'pretty scary' truth about a common household chore

Every time people around the world wash their clothes, millions of tiny plastic microfibres are shed and released into waste water systems.

If they get into waterways, they are often eaten by fish.

When humans eat those fish, they too ingest the plastic.

Dr Michelle Blewitt, from the Australian Microplastic Assessment Project (AUSMAP), said it was “pretty scary” people were essentially consuming their own clothes.

“Any clothes that are synthetic, once they’re washed in the washing machine, they create thousands of microfibres every time people do a load,” she said.

“The fibres are too fine to get captured by many waste water systems before they get washed out into the ocean.”

A dead whale in a net is hauled above the ocean. In the background people in boats watch.
Of 68 marine mammals hauled in for testing by D'Bone Collector Museum, 48 had died from plastic. Source: Darrell Blatchley

Dr Blewitt said she was unaware of any washing machine models with filters that could remove microplastics before they were cast into waste water systems.

If the tiny plastic pieces reach the ocean, they can travel thousands of kilometres on currents – creating a global problem.

It’s not just humans and fish that are being affected by microplastics – larger animals like whales are literally being clogged by them too.

Dr Blewitt points to a recent study conducted in the Gulf of Mexico which found baleen whales are getting flooded with plastic when they try to suck shrimp through their bristly plates.

“It’s a huge problem,” she said.

“At this stage there is no washing machine that will stop those microfibres from entering our waste water stream.”

Washing machines are releasing millions of plastic microfibres into the ocean. Pictured is a stock image of a child looking into a front-loading washing machine.
Washing machines are releasing millions of plastic microfibres into the ocean. Source: Getty

‘Burned ourselves’ to point of no return

The issue is particularly pressing in countries with undeveloped waste water treatment facilities like the Philippines.

Darrell Blatchley from from D’Bone Collector Museum spoke to Yahoo News Australia from Bangkok as he prepared to receive an award from UNESCO for his work on reducing plastics in waterways in Davao city, 960km south of Manila.

“I live in a city of 2.5 million people and they have no waste water treatment,” he said.

“After you use the restroom, it goes to your septic tank, and when it overflows it goes straight into the regular canal and into the ocean.

“With the washing machines it doesn’t go into the septic tank, it goes straight into the canal and into the ocean.

“We’ve pretty much burned ourselves with the amount of microplastics we’ve already created.”

A Philippines canal filled with plastic garbage.
A Philippines canal filled with plastic garbage. Source: Darrell Blatchley

Over the last 10 years, Mr Blatchley has conducted autopsies on 65 whales and dolphins found dead along in the Davao coast.

Of the 65 marine mammals, 58 died due to human-related causes – 48 of those were killed by plastics.

Mr Blatchley said his sons were being affected by the plastic-related carnage they regularly witness.

“They’re going, ‘It’s garbage, isn’t it again, dad?” Mr Blatchley said.

“They’re eight and 10 years old, but they’re getting angry.

“They’re saying, ‘Dad if we’ve found this many dead whales and dolphins, how will there ever be any left in the ocean for me to see alive when I grow up?’

Darrell Blatchley made global headlines after pulling 40kg of plastic from the carcass of a dead whale. He holds up a sheet of plastic in this photo.
Darrell Blatchley made global headlines after pulling 40kg of plastic from the carcass of a dead whale. Source: Darrell Blatchley

“They’re saying, ‘Will my sons even see a dead whale at this rate?’

“So if a 10-year-old and eight year old can understand that, why can’t us adults?”

Mr Blatchley said microplastics were now so prevalent we had “burned ourselves” to the point of no return.

He believes marine mammals only have a future if the majority of people suddenly change their waste disposal methods.

“I fear that ship has already sunk,” Mr Blatchley said.

Aussie plants ‘more likely’ to remove microfibres

Unlike many developing countries, urban Australian waste water systems filter out most microplastics before they reach the ocean, with the majority being trapped in sediment.

Dr Blewitt said she agreed with an assessment by the peak industry Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA) 99.9% of the plastic fibres were most likely trapped by urban systems.

WSAA executive director Adam Lovell told Yahoo News Australia local wastewater and drinking-water treatment systems were considered highly effective in removing microplastics.

“Obviously more advanced plants are more likely to remove more microplastics and microfibres,” he said.

Darrell Blatchley warns that without waste water filtration, plastics of all sizes flood into the ocean.
Mr Blatchley warns that without waste water filtration, plastics of all sizes flood into the ocean. Source: Darrell Blatchley

“Research is also underway into the use of different technologies to remove microplastics from wastewater.

“However, these technologies are yet to be successfully implemented to remove all microplastics from wastewater.

“Water utilities in Australia are supporting research that will help them better understand the ability of their treatment processes to capture microplastics and how they pass through their water and wastewater systems.

“This research will ensure the extent, nature and source of the issue is accurately understood before implementing any costly solutions that may not be effective.”

Reducing our impact on the environment

The UK research found each litre of modern filtered waste water still had 5.1 microplastic particles in it.

Dr Blewitt says consumers wishing to reduce their impact on the environment can take a few simple steps.

“The way that we can minimise the amount of microfibres is to wash synthetic clothes in laundry bags,” she said.

“By doing that we can capture a large portion, not all of it, in these bags.

“Cora Balls are also supposed to attract microfibres.”

Dr Blewitt said the problem can also be alleviated by wearing clothes made from natural fibres, although many of these still contain elastane.

Yahoo News Australia contacted washing machine manufacturers Samsung, Electrolux and Fisher and Paykel about whether they were working on microplastics filters, but none provided comment by deadline.

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