Out to Dry

Revealing the hidden life of microplastics in our rivers and seas

A project by Andy Freeman and Sam Penn

The Out to Dry project attempts to reveal the hidden world of synthetic fibres and microplastics, following their journey from our wardrobes and washing machines, through the sewerage system and into the rivers, mudflats and marshes of Essex.

When clothing made from synthetic fibres like polyester are washed, small lengths of fibre break off and make their way into our sewerage system. For some clothes, especially new ones, this amounts to hundreds of thousands of fibres making their way into the sewerage system. Joining up with glitter and microbeads from cosmetics, body paint and kids play, this army of microplastics makes its way towards the ultimate destination of the majority of our water waste, the rivers and coastline of the UK.

Although around 98% of these microplastics will get caught at the sewerage works, Thames Water process around 4.6 billion litres of sewerage every day, so even the little that escapes amounts to trillions of fibres and particles every year.

Large amounts of sewerage is bypassing this process due to heavy rainfall and dumping. In 2020, at least 24 billion litres of sewerage was discharged by Thames Water, that’s enough to fill 10,000 olympic sized swimming pools.

Given current scientific estimates of how many microfibres are being emitted from our washing machines every day and making their way into the oceans, if we could join all the fragments of fibre back together, the strand would wrap around the Earth more than a 1,000 times.

This is just for the river Thames, just for one year

Click on the circles to explore further...

What can I do right now to minimise my own impact?

  1. Buy clothes made from natural fibres
  2. Avoid washing clothes just after heavy rain in your area
  3. Wash clothes less often and in cold water so they last longer
All images and video by the authors or in the public domain unless otherwise credited. Initially commissioned by Metal for Estuary 2021 festival and funded by Arts Council England. Thanks to everyone who supported or helped us with our research, including Lighthouse Furniture Project, Southend Beach Care, Clive Webster, Stephanie Wright and Katie Reilly.