AHAM looks forward to being part of the solution on the issue of microfibers, a type of microplastic that has been found in waterways. As appliance manufacturers and other industries work together to find ways to address the issue, it is important that solutions effectively address originating sources and protect the energy efficiency gains that appliances have made through decades of innovation.
The concern about microplastics in waterways has prompted some environmental advocacy groups and lawmakers to call for the installation of in-line filters on washing machines as a way to capture microfibers that break off from clothing and textiles during wash cycles.
AHAM, in an effort to assess the effectiveness of microfiber filters on clothes washers as a solution to the issue, contracted with NSF International to conduct testing of the filters. The testing results showed that the filters would be largely ineffective. They also created a number of problems, including wasted water, increased energy use and unnecessary plastic use.
Testing found that filters did not capture microfibers efficiently and prevented only a fraction of microfibers from discharging into the drain line. Filters would also lead to a major step backward in energy efficiency. The testing showed that the filters caused washers to use up to 14 more gallons of water and increased run times by an average of 10-14 minutes. In the worst case, the washer ran longer and used more water than an entire extra cycle. The filters, which are made of plastic, would put more plastic into the environment than they would remove. It would take 13 years — longer than the average useful life of clothes washers — for one filter to collect the amount of plastic equal to what it took, and that does not take into account the plastic in the filters that need to be replaced throughout its use.
The filters present challenges for consumers, as well. The filters must be cleaned after every cycle or two, putting a burden on consumers to clean filters and dispose of the collected material in a way that does not lead to the material entering waterways. They could not be installed in small laundry areas that provide no room to mount the filter, which could lead a consumer to avoid using them altogether. Testing also showed the filters could create a flooding risk if a bypass were not included. However, with a bypass, the filters will likely be useless unless changed and cleaned after every few washes.
Finally, it is unclear that clothing and textiles are the major source of microfibers in waterways. Research by the San Francisco Estuary Institute and 5 Gyres Institute found 300 times more microfibers come from storm water than wastewater. It would be more productive to focus on the various originating sources of microfibers to find ways to reduce microfibers in waterways.
AHAM acknowledges that microfibers are a problem that needs to be addressed and is willing to work toward that goal. However, in-line clothes washer filters are ineffective, inefficient and will be a step backward in the pursuit of cleaner waterways and greater efficiency.