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Airing our dirty laundry: Are our clothes harming the environment?

Undergraduate research has direct policy implications

 Miriam Diamond, Hayley McIlwraith, Chelsea Rochman and Jack Lin. standing in a row in an office

L-R: Professor Miriam Diamond, Hayley McIlwraith, Assistant Professor Chelsea Rochman and Jack Lin. Photo Diana Tyszko.

Two undergraduate students researching pollution have helped develop a new method for measuring how much plastic is released into the environment from laundering clothes, and their work may impact both consumer choices and government policy.

Hayley McIlwraith and Jack Lin, both second-year students, have been working on a Research Opportunity Program (ROP) project with Assistant Professor Chelsea Rochman of the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and Professor Miriam Diamond of the Department of Earth Sciences to study the effectiveness of two different kinds of contraptions meant to trap microplastic fibres in the washing machine.

Eligible students will have their next chance to participate in the Research Opportunity Program when courses for the 2018 summer term and 2018-19 fall-winter terms are announced next month.

“It’s not easy to count fibres, so most people have measured contamination by weight, but what these students have done is develop a novel method for counting that we can use to project how many fibres are being released into the environment,” says Rochman.

“We aim to publish our work to share our findings and new method, and we’ve also talked about writing a policy brief to share with people at Queen’s Park.”

Plastic pollution is a huge environmental problem, with approximately eight million metric tonnes entering the oceans each year. How much of that is microfibers from laundering textiles has yet to be determined, Rochman notes, making the students’ work all the more important.

Washing machine filters standard in Japan

Demonstrating the effectiveness of various mitigation technologies will inform government, industry and consumers in hopes to make filters on washing machines standard, as they are in other parts of the world such as Japan.

“If you scooped up a handful of water from Lake Ontario, it is likely that it would contain microfibres,” says Diamond.

“I think what’s interesting about the project is that it has direct policy implications. There are concrete actions that can be taken by individuals, government and industry.”

The research being done by the students is part of a larger collaboration with federal and provincial departments, industry groups and the non-profit Ocean Conservancy, which contributed funds to help buy a special washing machine to test the filters.

Diamond says the broad partnership behind the research project increases the potential to move the results and findings from the university into a broader public forum.

This is an experience I didn’t expect to have so soon…to develop an experiment from scratch is really special.

Using the washing machine and fleece blankets as a test material, the students developed a method to collect the fibres in the wash water in small samples and then count them all to determine the total amount.

“Instead of weighing the fibres — which doesn’t give an accurate amount — we put the samples on filter paper, took individual images and stitched them together, and then we counted the fibres in the overall image, giving us a count,” says Lin.

“It’s really amazing to be part of something like this that will have a real life impact.”

McIlwraith expected her second-year studies would involve reading textbooks and memorizing material, not collecting data and doing original research.

“This is an experience I didn’t expect to have so soon, and I really love it. In class we have labs, but the methods are already established, and we just follow the instructions. To develop an experiment from scratch is really special.”

The work being done by the students under this project shows the kind of opportunities available to undergraduates at the University of Toronto, adds Rochman.

“We have lots of different versions of ROP programs, and in the typical case, a student comes in and works with a grad student and follows a recipe. But Jack and Hayley have really led this project, and these opportunities exist for other students as well.”

Eligible students will have their next chance to participate in the Research Opportunity Program when courses for the 2018 summer term and 2018-19 fall-winter terms are announced next month.