The abundance of plastic on Earth is an unfortunate fact of life that’s hard to avoid. The synthetic material has a much more sinister presence on our campus and the bodies of water surrounding it than many are aware of.
Roy Ludwig, a fourth-year geology and education major, found microfibers in the Sawmill Brook, the college’s main drainage river on campus that connects the Gunk to the Wallkill River. Microfibers are a subset of microplastics, which are extremely small pieces of plastic debris in the environment, that are specifically produced by washing synthetic fluids. Ludwig’s discovery was a part of his study with faculty mentor Andrea Varga, in which they received an Academic Year Undergraduate Research Experience (AYURE) grant to research the effects of a filter on the number of microfibers released while doing laundry.
On average, each load of laundry releases 9 million microfibers that never biodegrade, meaning they remain in waterways forever. These microfibers are ingested by fish and make their way through the food chain, posing a huge environmental concern.
Microplastics attract chemical toxins to them, like pesticides, which enter marine life, as well as our bodies, through eating those fish. In addition to ingesting fish with microplastics, they have also been found in drinking water. Chemicals in microplastics are endocrine disruptors that interfere with bodily functions such as brain activity and reproduction.
The external microfiber filter Ludwig studied prevents microfibers from getting into drainage systems. It’s installed onto the gray water hose of the washing machine, and filters out the microfibers before they go down the drain. For every ten to 15 loads of laundry, the filter is cleaned by scraping the microfibers out and throwing them into the garbage, rather than them going down the drain.
Ludwig purchased two of them with the AYURE Grant and installed them to the McKenna and Parker Theater washing machines, then studied the effectiveness of the filters and their usage.
Unfortunately, microplastics and microfibers are in almost every waterway on the planet, including the ones in New Paltz, like Black Creek and Wallkill River.
“We’re so used to seeing big pieces of plastic water bottles on beaches and stuff, and that’s what we see as the problem. But this is really the invisible problem that we can’t see,” Ludwig said.
While this specific technology that filters away microfibers may not be accessible to everyone, there are offered plenty of free ways to reduce what Ludwig calls your “microfiber footprint.”
The first way is to wash your clothes less often. “They definitely don’t need to be washed as much as we are. If you want to freshen up your clothes, especially in the summertime, you can leave them out to just hang out in the sun. The sun will actually kill a lot of the bacteria that might be on your clothing, so that UV light will not only freshen it up but disinfect it as well,” Ludwig said. “So, you can use the power of our outdoors to wash our clothes.”
Another way is to steer away from purchasing and using so much synthetic clothing, which includes clothing made up of polyester, nylon and acrylic fabrics. Ludwig noted that, “Most sportswear is made out of polyester. So just getting away from those and if you’re getting new clothing, maybe go towards more natural clothing like cotton, wool or linen. Those are all natural fibers. They produce microfibers themselves, but those are completely biodegradable and they really don’t have an effect on the environment.”
Ludwig’s third way to decrease your microfiber pollution is to use certain settings on your washing machine. The agitation in the washing machine produces the microfibers, but Ludwig explained that, “You can use cold water, a low spin — so like delicates — and just the shortest wash time, quick wash, and if you do those, those are pretty significantly reducing the amount of microfibers that you produce in a load.”
“It’s a problem that affects us. But there’s also things that you can do right now, and really simple changes will reduce the amount of microfibers you produce and actually save you money. Because if you’re reducing the amount of times you wash, that’s less water, and less electricity. It’s overall a win-win trying to reduce microfibers.”
If you’re hooked on hearing more about Ludwig’s research, make sure to attend his presentation on May 12th at 5 p.m. in the Honors Center to learn more.