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Move quickly and make small changes: how to reduce the impact of your polyester clothes

Hanging items out to dry, rather than tumble drying, is a small step that can be taken to reduce the environmental harm caused by washing polyester clothes
Hanging items out to dry, rather than tumble drying, is one of the small steps that can be taken to reduce the environmental harm caused by washing polyester clothes. Photograph: Michael Moeller/Getty Images/EyeEm

When I told a friend I was writing about the most environmentally friendly way to care for polyester, he joked: “Put it in the bin.” Since polyester is a plastic that won’t biodegrade in landfill, he’s definitely wrong. But his joke reflects a growing concern that polyester clothing is an environmental hazard.

To start with, virgin polyester is derived from fossil fuels, and as the technology stands, recycled polyester is more accurately downcycled plastic. The process takes bottles out of a closed loop system and degrades them so they can’t be recycled again.

These environmental challenges are compounded during use. Polyester is a smelly, sweaty, stain-prone material that sheds plastic microfibres when it is washed and worn. But, because it’s cheap, it’s in more than half our clothes. Since it’s very likely we all have something made from polyester in our wardrobes, here is some expert advice on how to minimise its impact.

Let’s start with microfibres

Microfibres are tiny particles that break off our clothes when we wash and wear them. Velina Karadzhova, the head of First Sentier MUFG Sustainable Investment Institute, says they’ve “been found in air, rivers, oceans, soils, tap water and human food such as fish and vegetables”.

To make matters worse, since synthetic materials don’t break down in natural environments, microfibre pollution is accumulating.

Paul Servin, the applications development director at Xeros Technology Group, says “around one third of all primary microplastic pollution comes from washing our clothes in the washing machine”.

Small changes to the way you do laundry can help

Rebecca Van Amber, a textile scientist from RMIT university, says you can significantly reduce microfibre shedding by making simple changes to your laundry. She suggests using a liquid detergent and lower water temperature, switching to a front-loader washing machine and, instead of tumble drying your clothes, hanging them out to dry.

According to Servin, washing garments in a full load of laundry can reduce shedding by up to five times. He also recommends washing garments less often and says: “Try and consider if the garments need washing or if they can be cleaned in other ways.”

Get a washing machine filter

Servin says having your washing machine fitted with a microfibre filter is the most effective way to prevent microfibres from wash cycles entering the environment. The latest filter developed by Xeros, called the XFiltra, can capture more than 90% of microfibre pollution.

In recognition of the scope of the problem, governments are moving to make microfibre filters a requirement on washing machines. In Australia, the National Plastics Plan aims for “an industry-led phase-in of microfibre filters on new residential and commercial washing machines by 1 July 2030”. There is similar legislation being drafted in the UK and France.

Use a Guppyfriend bag

Another way to prevent microfibre pollution is by using a Guppyfriend bag. Place your polyester or synthetic garments inside it during washing. Studies show the bags reduce the amount of shedding and catch microfibres that do break off.

But, Servin says, be mindful of how you dispose of microfibres caught inside the bag. “The temptation would be to rinse it out under a tap, which would defeat the object.” Experts say the safest thing is to put them in the bin.

Different fabrics shed at different rates

Another thing to keep in mind is that different fabrics shed microfibres at different rates. Karadzhova says polyester sheds about three times more than nylon, while fabrics from mixed materials also appear to shed less than fabrics made from 100% polyester.

Textile weave should be factored in too, Van Amber says, to avoid “fabrics which are fluffy and pill” because this is visible evidence of microfibre shedding. A good example is fleece fabrics that have a brushed surface and raised fibres. She says these fabrics are “much more likely to shed fibres than yoga pants” because smooth stretchy materials are made of longer fibres that have less threads protruding and so are less susceptible to shedding.

Move quickly to prevent odours and stains

Since polyester is plastic, it has a complicated relationship with sweat and oil. Which is to say, it holds on to both and won’t let them go. That’s why polyester starts to smell and why stains on polyester can be impossible to wash out.

“Any stain should be treated as quickly as possible” because if it has time to dry and set, it will be much more difficult to remove, Van Amber says. “Gently blot an oil stain with soap or detergent and water immediately.” Sweat stains should also be moved on quickly to prevent odour from setting in.

Van Amber says polyester fabrics with a looser weave or knit structure should be more resistant to odours. This is because “the gaps and spaces between the fibres and yarns facilitates air flow through the fabric.” On the other hand, fabrics with a very tight weave should be more resistant to staining because “any liquid spilled on it will land as a drop” and the tightness of the structure should delay the drop being absorbed.

Finally, be aware of polyester or synthetics claiming to have antimicrobial and anti-odour capabilities. Studies show that while they can control bacteria, they do not control smell.

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