Press release: Innocent washing is major source of plastic soup

European research shows alarming results

Amsterdam, September 30, 2015 – Clothes and washing machines both contribute much more to the infamous plastic soup in the oceans than previously thought. New research shows that, per wash, not tens of thousands but millions of tiny synthetic fibers are released into the water. Large numbers of these then slip undetected through the water treatment plants, only to land via the food chain back onto our own plates. So all of us inadvertently contribute to this rapidly growing environmental problem.

Besides cosmetic products like shampoo, toothpaste and scrubs, it is now apparent that clothing is a source of microplastics; acrylic, nylon and polyester especially are major culprits. With acrylic, more than 3,000 fibers per gram can be released in one wash. And one fleece jacket of 680 grams loses almost a million fibers at a time.

Maria Westerbos, director of the Plastic Soup Foundation: “Or how about a pair of 55 gram nylon socks … Almost 136,000 fibers per wash…”

These are the shocking interim results of an EU funded project Life+ Program: Mermaids, Ocean Clean Wash (  For nearly three years, the National Research Council (NCR) from Italy, LEITAT and Polysistec from Spain, and the Dutch Plastic Soup Foundation have worked together to look for causes and solutions. This research program is now halfway towards completion.

It has been found that the small synthetic fibers which are in many fabrics wear down with use and crumble into tiny particles that are rinsed out with the waste water from washing machines in the direction of the oceans. These plastic particles are broken down even further by the salty seawater which fish then mistake for plankton. In this way, via the food chain, synthetic fibers end up back on our own plates. Nowadays, there is 1 microplastic particle found in every gram of mussel meat, often from clothing. Also 63% of the shrimp catches in the North Sea were recently found to contain synthetic fibers.

Besides research on the amount of fibers released, ‘Mermaids, Ocean Clean Wash’ are also looking for solutions. Can the manufacture of clothing be modified so that in future fibers are not released? Other variables include: type and brand of detergent, the role of fabric softeners, washing temperature, and type of thread; woven or knitwear.

Previous Research
In 2011, ecologist Dr. Mark Browne of the University of New South Wales was the first to be published on the subject, in the journal ‘Environmental Science & Technology’. He suggested that 85% of the manmade micro-fibers found on beaches came from clothing made of nylon and acrylic. According to his research 1,900 fibers would be released per garment.  

However, further research by environmental researcher Heather Leslie of the Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM), Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam, already showed that the problem was bigger. According to Leslie 200,000 small fibers would be released per liter of water.

Maria Westerbos: “Now it appears that the problem is much bigger, so it’s high time to sound the alarm. Not by pointing the finger at the clothing or washing machine manufacturers, but by working together to find solutions as quickly as possible. For example, by designing clothes in a different way or by building a filter which can catch the fibers. Who’s with me?”

About the Plastic Soup Foundation
The Plastic Soup Foundation (PSF) wants to stop the increasing pollution of the oceans with plastics, nationally and internationally. The PSF also wants to ensure that in future plastic will no longer reach the sea. In 2013, Mary Westerbos, director of the PSF, entered as a newcomer into the Dutch Sustainable Top 100 at the position of number 20. For more information:

About CNR (Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche)
The Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR, National Research Council) is an Italian public organization. Its duty is to support scientific and technological research. Two institutes of CNR are participating in MERMAIDS: the Institute of Chemistry and Technology of Polymers (ICTP) and the Institute for Macromolecular Studies (ISMAC).

LEITAT is a Spanish technological center specialized in production technologies. LEITAT develops R&D activities in many areas and supports technological transfer to industrial sectors.
LEITAT provides in MERMAID a mapping and estimation of domestic and industrial laundry effluent microplastic release. It assists in developing innovative textile treatments, detergent additives and washing recommendations to avoid garments’ microplastic removal in laundry processes. LEITAT, among other things, will carry out a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) analysis and a socio-economic impact assessment. A ‘Best Practices’ set of guidelines will be developed for different target audiences.

About Polysistec
Polysistec, SL (Polímeros y Sistemas de Aplicación Técnica) specializes in chemical products for the textile industry. Polysistec, located north of Barcelona in Spain, is committed to research and development in the field of advanced polymers. It has expertise in the development of innovative textile auxiliaries.

More information for the press:

Plastic Soup Foundation
Maria Westerbos – Director
T: +31 (0)6 – 510 90 691

Jeroen Dagevos – Head of Programs
T: + 31 (0)6– 468 378 86

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