Businesses rush to stem flood of microplastic fibers in oceans | Plastics
From filters to bags to bales, the number of products intended to stop the torrent of microplastic fibers discharged from washing machines into rivers and oceans is increasing rapidly.
Grundig recently became the first home appliance maker to incorporate a microfiber filter into a washing machine, while a UK company developed a system that does away with disposable fiber-trapping filters.
The entrepreneurs are also tackling the problem at the source, developing biodegradable tissue from kelp and orange peel, and tweaking a self-healing protein originally discovered in squid tentacles.
Microplastic pollution has invaded the entire planet, from the top of Mount Everest to the deepest oceans. It is known that people consume the tiny particles through food and water, as well as inhale them. Microplastics have been shown to harm wildlife, but the impact on humans is not known, although microplastics damage human cells in the laboratory.
Fibers in synthetic fabrics, such as acrylic and polyester, fall off in high numbers during the wash, about 700,000 per wash cycle, with the “delicate” wash cycle actually being worse than standard cycles. It is estimated that 68 million washing loads are carried out each week in the UK.
New data from 36 locations collected during Ocean Race Europe revealed that 86% of microplastics in seawater samples were fibers. “Our data clearly shows that microplastics are ubiquitous in the ocean and that surprisingly the main component is microfibers,” said Aaron Beck, of the Geomar Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany.
Grundig, which launched its fiber-capturing washing machine in November, said the system captures up to 90% of man-made fibers released during wash cycles. The filter cartridges are made from recycled plastic and last up to six months, after which they can be returned for free.
A system which can be fitted to existing washing machines and does not require replacement cartridges has been created by UK company Matter and recently received £ 150,000 from the British Design Fund. The device, called a Gulp, is connected between the waste pipe and the drain and traps the fibers in a container which empties every 20 washes.
Company founder Adam Root, a former Dyson engineer and scuba diver enthusiast, said the idea started with a £ 250 grant from the Prince’s Trust. “I used it to take a washing machine apart and that’s when I had my ‘eureka’ moment.”
In the UK, Alberto Costa and other MPs are campaigning for a new regulations requiring all new washing machines be equipped with plastic microfiber filters from 2025, supported by the Women’s Institute and others. France has introduced the obligation to install filters from 2025. The EU, Australia and California are considering similar rules.
There is already a range of microfiber capture devices on the market, but they have produced mixed performance in independent testing. Research from the University of Plymouth in the UK looked at six different products.
One of them stood out, Xfiltra, which kept 78% of microfibers from dripping. The company is focused on providing the technology to manufacturers to integrate into washing machines. Scientists tested two other devices that could be retrofitted to machines – the Lint LUV-R and Planet Care filtration systems – but these trapped only 25% and 29% of the fibers, respectively.
The other three products tested were used in the washing machine drum. The Guppyfriend wash bag, in which the clothes are placed, collected 54% of the microfibers, while a prototype wash bag from Fourth Element trapped only 21% of the fibers. The last product tested was a single Cora bullet, the rods of which trapped 31% of the fibers, although more than one bullet could be used.
An earlier report from the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency found significantly better performance of Planet Care and Guppyfriend products, although it was not peer reviewed.
Professor Richard Thompson, who works at Plymouth University and was part of the testing team, warned that filters alone would not solve the problem with plastic microfibers. “We have also shown that about 50% of all fiber emissions occur when people wear the clothes,” he told The Guardian. “In addition, most of the human population does not have a washing machine.
“As with almost all current plastic issues [pollution], the problem is best solved by a more comprehensive examination at the design stage, ”he said. “We have to design them to minimize the emission rate, which should also extend the life of the clothes and therefore be more durable.”
A dozen groups working on better fabrics were recently shortlisted as finalists in a $ 650,000 (£ 482,000) Microfiber Innovation Challenge hosted by Conservation X Labs. AlgiKnit creates biodegradable yarns from kelp, a type of seaweed, while Orange Fiber in southern Italy makes fabrics from the by-products of citrus juice production.
Another finalist, Squitex, developed a protein originally found in the tentacles of squid. The company claims that it is the fastest self-healing material in the world and can be made into fibers for textiles and coverings that reduce the loss of microfibers.
Other finalists take a different approach. Nanoloom creates lossless fabrics using graphene, and another group uses high power lasers to treat the surface of fabrics to make the fibers less likely to be lost.
Cotton, as a natural material, is biodegradable, but its production often involves overuse of water and pesticides. The Better Cotton Initiative, which covers more than 20% of global cotton production, recently announced a target to reduce carbon emissions per tonne of cotton by 50% by 2030, compared to 2017. Other targets Additional coverage covering pesticide use, soil health, smallholder livelihoods and women’s empowerment are expected by the end of 2022.