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Friday, January 22, 2021

Work on changing systems instead of yourself

Clothes dryers in WWU’s Birnam Wood main laundry room. // Photo by Sadie Fick
Clothes dryers in WWU’s Birnam Wood main laundry room.  // Photo by Sadie Fick

By Sadie Fick

There’s a reason the wealthiest countries and people in the world contribute the most to climate change.

Every modern convenience, from flying home for winter break to texting group members about a project, uses energy, requires raw materials and creates waste.

Machine-drying clothes is no exception. It takes electricity, requires parts to make and results in microplastics being vented into the environment. 

While air-drying is an option, we don’t have to stop using drying machines completely. We just need to do it better.

Activist, inventor and researcher Rachael Miller said solving environmental questions is about balancing a low-footprint lifestyle with everyday necessities.

Miller has studied microfiber emissions from dryers, founded the Rozalia Project for Clean Oceans, invented the Cora Ball to catch microfibers from clothes in the laundry before they end up in our water systems and air-dries her laundry to reduce her personal environmental impact.

Miller’s work is an example of the multipronged approach necessary to address environmental issues: research, systemic change, better products and personal responsibility.

Systemic change in our energy use and production would make a large difference in the environmental cost of dryers.

The annual energy used by Western’s 16,000 students drying their laundry is equivalent to a car driving 4.8 million miles every year, according to WWU Net Impact president Will Barror’s calculations and the Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator.

For the roughly 4,000 students living on campus during a normal year, a load of laundry in one of the industrial dryers can take two times more energy, adding up to the same emissions as 1.8 million miles driven by a car. This is in part because they can handle nearly two times larger loads compared to normal dryers, according to product sheets provided by Residences Associate Director Kurt Willis.

Alexander Bean, fourth-year student and WWU Energy Union president, said more energy-efficient dryers could make a difference because if appliances required 50% less power, we would use half as many resources to create the energy needed.

It is important to consider the energy source too.

“If we were powering all our dryers with solar panels, it wouldn’t matter how much energy they were using,” Barror said.

Even when energy isn’t a factor, there are other ways to affect the environment.

Miller and Kirsten Kapp published a study this year linking dryers to the emissions of microfibers, the smallest type of microplastics. They discovered microfibers where the dryer vented to outside, up to 30 feet away. 

This study is the first to make that connection, so more research is needed to know how and why dryers emit microfibers.

Kapp and Miller encouraged students to work on this issue. In fact, one of Kapp’s undergraduate students did the initial research for this groundbreaking study.

“There’s a real multidisciplinary call to research action,” Kapp said.

Engineering students can dissect different dryer designs to study efficiency, and students working with textiles can study how to make them less likely to break down, Kapp said.

Students outside the sciences can contribute too. Psychology students can study how likely people are to consider sustainability when choosing which products to use.

Without research, Kapp said that systemic change and more sustainable products can’t exist.

In the last 10 years, researchers have discovered and explored the connection between washing machines and microfibers, and now California may require washing machines to have a filter to catch microfibers, Kapp said.

Even beyond cleaning and drying our clothes, students can create a more sustainable world by asking how we interact with and impact the environment, and finding solutions.

Living a sustainable life as an individual is worthwhile. However, real change is going to require many minds working together to rethink our systems.

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