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June 8, 2023

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Ditch detergent to cut plastic pollution

Do you wash clothes without detergents?

I’ve been doing so for nearly a month since summer officially began in early May.

In the summer, most of my shirts, both long- and short-sleeved, are “stained” with perspiration, so a fast wash with pure water is all that is required. It’s not about costs; detergents are not particularly pricy. It’s all about reducing plastic pollution.

Many detergents are known to contain microplastics, which are eventually washed into the sea and endanger marine life. In 2019, a group of Columbia University researchers demonstrated the dangers of detergents for environmental health in a well-recognized experiment. And on this year’s World Environment Day, which is celebrated annually on June 5, laundry pollution was a hot topic in the global campaign themed “Beat Plastic Pollution.”

Detergents are certainly not the only source of laundry pollution. Another example is synthetic fabric. According to a recent study by the United Nations Environment Programme, washing clothes causes them to shed tiny plastic fibers known as microfibers, which are a type of microplastic. The report claimed that laundry alone releases more than 500,000 tons of plastic microfibers into the ocean each year — the equivalent of nearly 3 billion polyester shirts.

While the UN report focused on garments, the Columbia University research revealed that detergent interaction with materials increases microfibers shed exponentially. According to the study, detergent-washed clothing has 86 percent more microfibers than pure water-washed clothes.

I’m not sure how many microplastics I’ve saved from being flushed down the drain, but a good habit is half the battle. As an individual, I have every reason to take a little step every day to contribute to reducing the planet’s plastic burden. And I hope that one day, clothes produced from biodegradable raw materials will become popular, helping to reduce laundry plastic pollution even further.

A recent Xinhua news agency story claimed that corn and other plants may hold promise for future biodegradable clothing.

The most recent UN report said that laundry, tires and beauty products are major sources of microplastic pollution. Columbia University pointed out that the majority of plastic waste consists of microplastics, which are tiny pieces of plastic measuring less than 5 millimeters across. It can enter the food chain as zooplankton and fish ingest it and make its way to human ingestion through seafood consumption.

Individual efforts matter

How dangerous is global plastic pollution?

“This year’s World Environment Day — the 50th iteration of the annual celebration of the planet — is focusing on the plastic pollution crisis. The reason? Humanity produces more than 430 million tons of plastic annually, two-thirds of which are short-lived products that soon become waste, filling the ocean and, often, working their way into the human food chain,” the UN report said.

And to think that microplastics, which are not only invisible to the naked eye but also indigestible and non-biodegradable in many circumstances, account for the majority of the world’s plastic pollution.

As the UN Environment Programme states, individual choices can make a difference in the plastic pollution challenge, though systemic transformation is also required. Plastic products, for example, should be reused or repurposed until they can no longer be used, at which point they should be recycled or disposed of correctly.

To this recommendation, I would add that if plastic items are here to stay in the foreseeable future, we should all attempt to use them as little as possible. For example, I may not be able to eliminate laundry detergents completely, but in the summer and for as many garments as feasible, I have chosen not to use detergents. I would only use them on rare occasions to remove accidentally acquired grease.

Plastic pollution will not disappear overnight. People have the choice of gradually reducing their use and properly reusing them.

Last month, residents in Pengpu Xincun in Shanghai’s Jing’an District brought empty, used plastic bottles to a local low-carbon market. They didn’t bring the bottles to discard them. Instead, they filled them with detergent from a large plastic barrel provided by a major detergent producer.

This way, these residents purchased fewer standard packaged detergents. Because the majority of detergents are marketed in plastic packaging, the citizens’ efforts, together with the manufacturer’s cooperation, helped reduce the demand for new plastic bottles that come with regular sales.

It was not the first time that Shanghai citizens have reduced their use of plastic in their daily lives. Last year, some residents in Minhang District transported their used, empty plastic bottles to a manufacturer-prepared large barrel in a neighborhood market to buy detergents. They were not required to pay in cash, but took advantage of their newly acquired “low-carbon points.”

The district residents were encouraged to bring their recyclable items to the neighborhood fair instead of throwing them away. In return, they received “low-carbon points” that they could use to purchase detergent.

In both the Jing’an and Minhang cases, bulk detergent sales eliminated the requirement for new plastic bottles. These are the stories of how individual conduct can help reduce the planet’s plastic burden. All the better if more and more residents learn to limit their usage of detergents, not simply detergent bottles.

Individuals may make a difference in more than just laundry. One can also take action against beauty products, which are another source of microplastic contamination.

Last week, major local news sites quoted Li Shuguang, a medical professor at Fudan University, as suggesting that plasticizers are dangerous to human health. In one of his studies, he discovered that the amount of plasticizers in women’s bodies is around six times that of men’s and that cosmetic products play a key role in this phenomenon.

Plasticizer is a chemical that is used to create or increase plasticity and flexibility, as well as to lessen brittleness.

Many cosmetic products create merely skin-deep “beauty” while implanting “poisonous” plastic substances deep within our bodies.

To a significant extent, this is a personal choice: Either ignore the potential dangers of microplastics or attempt to prevent them as early as possible.


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