How you wash your laundry greatly influences how long your favorite clothes last and their environmental impact.
Clothes change over time and a new study reveals how the time and temperature of a wash cycle can affect the colors and durability. The study found clothes lose less dye and fiber when washed in shorter cycle and cooler water. Clothing will fade and thin less as a result. This is environmentally friendly, as well
Clothes lose both dye and fabric fibers once they are washed. They get less colorful, but we do not notice that right away. However, the fabric becomes less durable and wears down over time. The lost dye and fibers also end up in the environment.
The University of Leeds has found that washing clothes in a lower-temperature, shorter cycle incurs fewer environmental impacts than higher temperatures used by most.
The researchers checked 36 white t-shirts for dye loss after running each load of laundry. This was accomplished by measuring how much dye was transferred from a piece of fabric to a white piece at the end of each cycle
There are two types of cycles- cold express and cotton short. “Cold express” takes 30 minutes, while “cotton short” takes 85 minutes to run. For each cycle, the team collected fibers in the wash water and from an extra empty wash cycle afterward. This process was repeated 16 times. The group let the clothes air dry for a full day.
The team then compared the t-shirts and white swatches to ones that had never been washed. They used an instrument called a spectrophotometer to gauge the color of each sample.
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Shirts lost color when washed at hot temperatures in long cycles, and cotton shirts faded more than polyester ones. The team also stirred swatches of dark t-shirts in water of three different temperatures to analyze the effects on color loss.
Fleece shirts lose their strength over time when they are washed in hotter cycles.
The longer, hotter wash and rinse cycles collected more fibers for the dark load than for the cool express cycle. The clothing washed in the longer, hot cycles lost about 30 percent less coverage of their color compared to the clothing washed in the shorter, cooler cycles. The difference persisted even during eight or sixteen washings.
Richard Blackburn, who researches sustainable materials at Leeds university, notes that the temperature of water determines the quality of laundry in addition to duration.
The team published their findings in the June 2020 issue of Dyes and Pigments.
The study clearly shows that color and fiber loss in the wash increase with cycle duration and temperature. Industrial engineer Mourad Krifa would like to see follow-up work done with other fabrics of different types.
Creating a cleaner, greener world
Nobody wants their clothes to wear out. To avoid this, you can wash your clothes with cooler, shorter cycles to have them stay cleaner for longer. Modern detergents are designed to work with these cycles.
Clothes dryers are not environmentally friendly. They increase the amount of greenhouse gases, which drive human-caused climate change. Short washing cycles can also save you money.
Shorter, cooler wash cycles not only save time, but also save water pollution. Dyes can contain hazardous chemicals. And all of those lost fibers add up. Those shed in a typical wash load would make a wad about the size of a chewing gum, says Flávia Salvador Cesa. She’s a graduate student at the University of São Paulo in Brazil.
Small microfibers come off of shirts while they are in the wash, carrying the dye with them. Cesa and her team believe that better filtering on consumer’s machines would cut the total 18,300 tons of cotton, 12,500 tons of synthetic fibers lost each year. Nevertheless, even if improvements were to be made, there still would be many tons released into waterways.
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The estimate of non-biodegradable microplastics in the water comes from a 2017 report. It is one third of all these particles. One cause is organic matter like fabrics lost to the wash and sent off to oceans, lakes and streams.
The fibers are not just plastic. Spanish and British researchers studied microfibers in a deep area of the Mediterranean Sea, and found that about eight out of 10 were cotton or linen. The study was done in 2018. Scientists don’t know how these fibers get into the ocean, but they are trying to find out what effect they might have on marine life.
Cotton found that their shorter and efficient washing cycles can accrue many benefits – less pollution, lower costs, and prettier clothes.
Even small steps to cut down on waste can add up. The best solution is to transition to sustainable practices and reduce the amount of waste created in the first place.