I know a lot of us are concerned about the number of news reports over the last few years regarding the shedding of microplastics from synthetic fabrics like polar fleece into waterways (and the wider environment) from the waste water of our laundries. While all fabrics shed in the process of their use and wash, microplastics don't break down, causing long term issues for marine life and the health of our waterways as well as the food chain. Microplastic originate from many industries, including manufacturing and cosmetics, but awareness of the shedding of synthetic fibres from clothing has been growing.
Synthetic fabrics like microfleece (which add a stay dry layer for many brands and is also popular as a reusable liner to assist in cleanup) and microfibre (known for its fast absorbing nature) are very popular in the cloth nappying world, and have been part of the development of the 'modern' cloth nappy that has revolutionised this age-old product. But do these modern fabrics have an environmental impact that may make them not such a good choice? And how do we mitigate the impact?
Samantha Early from DW, a cloth nappy user in New Zealand whose cloth nappy stash includes synthetic fabric based nappies, investigated just how much microplastic pollution a load of her nappies shed, with the assistance of New Zealand's Institute of Environmental Science and Research.
For anyone who has had concerns about this particular aspect of using fabrics like microfleece, suede cloth, microfibre and polyurethane lamininate, the results are comforting in that microplastics from cloth nappies seem to be a very small proportion of the fabric shed in a load - of the 102.5 milligrams collected from Samantha's load of nappies, only 0.5% of that was microplastics. One of the experts she spoke to considered that to be 'not much' compared to other types of clothing, and "just a teeny tiny piece of one disposable nappy would match what went through from the reusable nappies."
Here's the link to the article. It's a really informative read.
It's undeniable that reusable nappies are better for the environment than disposable nappies, so using cloth nappies instead of single use ones automatically reduces the environmental impact of a family. However, microplastics are not supposed to be in our waterways and the full impact is still be investigated. Are there any ways that we can actually reduce the impact our nappies have during the washing process?
Practically speaking, there's little evidence to suggest that 'microplastic filters' attached to washing machines actually catch much of what they're supposed to, and you still have the issue of disposal. Even if it doesn't end up in the waterways, it's still plastic that won't break down.
Samantha's summary of her own plan for the future is, I think, a really sensible approach to take:
1. Continue to use the nappies you have, even if they contain synthetic fabrics. It's less of an impact than manufacturing brand new cloth nappies to replace them, and still less impact than disposable nappies.
2. When you buy new nappies, look at natural fibres like organic cotton, hemp, and (even though it's not quite as 'natural' as the manufacturing process is intensive) bamboo for the absorbency.
3. Consider your other laundry, which could be shedding a lot more microplastics than your nappies - especially polar fleece - and when you purchase new clothes, look at the ones that won't shed microplastics.
4. Look at other plastic consumption in your household. Any change makes a difference, even a small one.