Grundig recently became the first appliance manufacturer to integrate a microfibre filter into a washing machine, while a British company has developed a system that does away with disposable fibre-trapping filters.
Entrepreneurs are also tackling the problem at source, by developing biodegradable fabrics from kelp and orange peel, and tweaking a self-healing protein originally discovered in squid tentacles.
Microplastic pollution has pervaded the entire planet, from the summit of Mount Everest to the deepest oceans. People are known to consume the tiny particles via food and water, as well as breathing them in. Microplastics have been shown to harm wildlife but the impact on people is not known, though microplastics do damage human cells in the laboratory.
Fibres from synthetic fabrics, such as acrylic and polyester, are shed in huge numbers during washing, about 700,000 per wash cycle, with the “delicates” wash cycle actually being worse than standard cycles. An estimated 68m loads of washing are done every week in the UK.
New data from 36 sites collected during The Ocean Race Europe found that 86% of the microplastics in the seawater samples were fibres. “Our data clearly show that microplastics are pervasive in the ocean and that, surprisingly, the major component is microfibres,” said Aaron Beck, at the Geomar Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany.
Grundig, which launched its fibre-catching washing machine in November, said the system caught up to 90% of synthetic fibres released during wash cycles. The filter cartridges are made from recycled plastic and last for up to six months, after which they can be returned free of charge.
A system that can be retrofitted to existing washing machines and does not need replacement cartridges has been created by the British company Matter, and was recently awarded £150,000 from the British Design Fund. The device, called Gulp, is connected between the outflow pipe and the drain and traps the fibres in a container that is emptied every 20 washes.
The company’s founder, Adam Root, a former Dyson engineer and keen scuba diver, said the idea had started with a £250 grant from the Prince’s Trust. “I used it to take apart a washing machine and that’s when I had my ‘eureka’ moment.”
In the UK, Alberto Costa and other MPs are campaigning for a new regulation requiring all new washing machines to be fitted with plastic microfibre filters from 2025, backed by the Women’s Institute and others. France has introduced the requirement for filters to be fitted from 2025. The EU, Australia and California are considering similar rules.
There are already a range of microfibre-catching devices on the market, but they have produced a mixed performance in independent testing. Research from the University of Plymouth in the UK examined six different products.
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