Make your laundry cleaner for the environment: Researchers designing ways to treat wastewater from washing machines

You can’t see silver nanoparticles in your clothes – not even with a microscope – but rest assured these tiny particles are present in many of your underwear, towels, socks, and other garments. Ranging in diameter from 1 to 100 nanometers, they are added to give clothes anti-odor and anti-bacterial properties. In fact, a quarter of the nanomaterial-based consumer products in the U.S. contain nanosilver, and the market share of textiles with silver climbed from 9 percent in 2004 to 25 percent just seven years later.

Unfortunately, these particles leach out of textiles when they’re washed, which is bad news considering their toxicity to marine organisms, as well as humans. The amount of silver that is ultimately leached into the washing solution depends on factors like the interactions between the detergent and how the silver was attached to the textiles. In any event, exposure to it can cause damage to your lungs, skin and liver cells, and it kills aquatic organisms like rainbow trout, zooplankton and zebra fish.

In addition, once the silver has made its way from your drain to the wastewater treatment plant, it can render the bacterial treatment processes there less effective. Moreover, 90 percent of the silver nanoparticles in wastewater end up in the biosolids that result from the sewage treatment process; this biosludge is then often used to fertilize agricultural land. This means it can end up in the food you eat, and it can also make its way into rivers.

Ion exchange process showing promise

Now, scientists are looking at a way to recover the pure silver nanoparticles from laundry wastewater right in the washing machine before it makes its way to the environment. When it is first released from clothes in the wash, it is in a chemical form that is easier to recover.

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One method being explored is ion exchange, although the presence of other cations in washing solution, like calcium, make this complicated. Ion-exchange materials that are embedded with sulfur-based chemicals are showing some promise given their ability to bind with silver,  but some ingredients commonly found in commercial detergents, such as water softeners and bleaches, can interfere with the process.

Nevertheless, the researchers are optimistic that a viable solution can be found. Decentralized systems for treating wastewater make sense because not all wastewater is the same; the water that comes from laundromats will be very different from that of restaurants, for example. One day, cartridges could be developed for washing machines that make the silver leaching issue a problem of the past.

Don’t add to the problem

Another way to be more responsible with your laundering practices is by using an eco-friendly laundry detergent. Commercial brands end up leaching all kinds of toxic chemicals into the soil and water. For example, the chemical benzophenone-2, which is present in many popular laundry detergents, is destroying coral reefs around the world. As if that weren’t bad enough, all of these chemicals that scientists are trying so hard to protect the environment from can also leach into your skin when you wear clothes that were laundered in these detergents.

Thankfully, alternatives like Health Ranger Select Laundry Detergent are made with natural ingredients to wash clothes gently yet effectively without compromising your health or that of the environment.

The way you wash your clothes can have a surprisingly big impact on the environment. As scientists develop ways to treat laundry wastewater efficiently, you can do your part by using detergents that don’t make the problem worse.

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