Environmental scientists define sustainability as “the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance.” And, of course, there are times when we can all see obvious objects or events that are harmful to the environment.
Recently an article appeared in a local magazine in which Tom Coffman, the manager of Waste Management’s Shawnee, KS recycling plant, is quoted as saying that while “8,000 tons of ostensibly recyclable trash is brought to them each month, there are 1,500 tons per month that can’t be saved.” And while some of it is “off the wall” items that are thrown into dumpsters, like bowling balls and bear carcasses and a live python, there is also an unending tsunami of plastic shopping bags, garden hoses, clothing and anything else that tangles up in the sorting machinery.
But while these large objects are easy to spot as being challenges to the recycling effort and thus harmful to sustainability, we in the world of garment cleaning face sustainability challenges that can’t be seen. For those items that we dry clean, we ensure that none of the chemicals being used in the closed-loop process are harmful to either people, the garments being cleaned, or the atmosphere when the small amounts of unseen residual chemicals left on the clothes are released to the air.
However, we face a different sustainability challenge that can’t be seen when we launder clothes in water rather than in liquid dry cleaning chemicals. All garments made with synthetic materials, such as polyester, nylon, and acrylics, shed thousands of microplastic fibers during the washing cycle. And when the wash water from the washing machines is dumped down the drain, they dump these microplastic fibers with it, with much of it ending up in our oceans where it becomes part of the marine food chain.
Recently the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 800 to 950 tons of microplastic from textiles is released with laundry water annually in Sweden. And while a portion of the microplastic is removed from the water in wastewater treatment plants, another portion remains in the water and is released directly to freshwater and marine water bodies.
Additionally, the wastewater treatment plants reintroduce the microplastics removed from the wastewater to the land, and ultimately the air, since the sewage sludge containing the microplastics is spread on agricultural land, used in soil production, or used in landfill cover materials.
We at GreenEarth have joined with the Plastic Soup Foundation in the Netherlands and PlanetCare in Slovenia in testing microplastic filters in our GreenEarth Cleaners’ locations. It is our hope that we can remove most of the microplastics from the laundry process before they are released to the wastewater collection system and stop a small unseen sustainability challenge from happening before it starts! For maximized sustainability is our ultimate goal.