Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

Today we have a question from Natalie Herbermann. She’s heard that when you put your clothes in the washing machine, they can leave behind harmful particles... And she’s wondering if there’s anything she can do about that. 

We had Luci Jones and Fatima Husain from our Possibly Team look into this question. Welcome, Luci and Fatima! 

Luci Jones: Hi, Megan! 

Fatima Husain: Hello! 

Megan Hall: So, what is Natalie talking about? Do my clothes really release harmful particles when I wash them?

Luci Jones: To learn more about this question, we spoke with Timnit Kefela,

Timnit Kefela: It's like Tim is neat.

Fatima Husain: She’s a Ph.D. candidate in environmental sciences at U.C. Santa Barbara. 

She says those harmful particles Natalie is talking about are called microplastics. 

Timnit Kefela: So microplastics are small pieces of plastic… they typically range from the size of one nanometer to less than five millimeters in size.

Megan Hall: How big is that? 

Luci Jones: Well, five millimeters is about the width of a pencil eraser.

Fatima Husain: And a nanometer is small enough that you can’t really see it. 

Megan Hall: Okay… but what do microplastics have to do with our clothing? 

Luci Jones: These days, nearly 60% of clothes worldwide are made out of synthetic plastic fibers like nylon, polyester, acrylic, and rayon. 

Fatima Husain: When those clothes begin to fall apart, they release microfibers — a type of microplastic.

Megan Hall: you’re saying that my clothing sheds tiny pieces of plastic?

Luci Jones: Yeah, unless you’re wearing plant-based clothes made out of something like cotton or hemp — they also shed fibers, but those fibers break down faster and don’t have plastic in them. 

Megan Hall: What does this have to do with my laundry?

Fatima Husain: Well, that shedding also happens when you wash your clothes.

Luci Jones: Timnit says, to understand this process, imagine that you’re a fiber on a polyester shirt. And then that shirt gets thrown into the washing machine.  

Timnit Kefela: So I'm a tiny little fiber, that's just chillin on this shirt. And then I got liberated, I'm like, wheee I'm free, I'm no longer part of this big garment.

Luci Jones: Now that the washing machine has jostled you out of place, you swirl around in the water and drain through the washing machine’s filter, if it even has one. 

Megan Hall: Because you’re small enough to slip through?

Fatima Husain: Right, and then you flow out to the wastewater treatment plant and then you could make your way back into the environment.

Megan Hall: So, what should we tell Natalie? Do her clothes leave behind harmful particles when she washes them? Should she be doing something different?

Luci Jones: Well, the research is not totally clear yet. Some lab experiments show that when animals eat these microfibers, it makes it harder for them to digest their food, grow and make babies. 

Fatima Husain: So far, many scientists think these microfibers aren’t causing enough problems that you should dramatically change your clothing choices or laundry habits.  

Luci Jones: But, we know her clothes DO shed microplastics and that we’re creating more every day. 

Fatima Husain: So, if Natalie is worried, Timnit says there are things she can use to catch the microfibers in her wash. There are laundry balls, wash bags for your clothes, and filters you install in your laundry drain. 

Luci Jones: But, if she’s worried about plastic in the environment, I would focus more on avoiding single use plastics like bags, cups and take out containers.

Megan Hall: Got it! Thanks, Luci and Fatima! 

That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way you recycle, use energy, or make any other choice that affects the planet, go to the public’s radio dot org slash possibly. Or subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. 

Possibly is a co-production of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and the Public’s Radio.