22 Aug 2023

Combatting microplastic pollution: Strategies and solutions

Microplastics, which are tiny plastic fragments measuring less than 5 mm in length, are a growing environmental problem.

Their origins are diverse, including the breakdown of tires and the washing of synthetic clothing in machines. According to the European Environment Agency, a substantial 80% of microplastic pollution originates from textiles, tires, and city dust.

So what can be done? Who is responsible? 

Governmental regulations can play a pivotal role in reduction strategies, while innovative filters are being developed to combat the phenomenon.

Cutting-edge innovations like CLEANR’s microplastic filter represent a real potential solution. We spoke with Max Pennington, CEO of CLEANR, about the causes and consequences of microplastic pollution as well as the effectiveness of the filter ahead of their presence at IFA Berlin 2023.

What’s the impact of microplastic pollution?

The primary concern is the impact of microplastic pollution on humans and the environment. And some of the studies are quite alarming. Max Pennington cited recent research that indicated humans were ingesting “a credit-card size amount of microplastics every week, on average.”  

In addition to its impact on humans, microplastic pollution can be found on 88% of the ocean’s surface, as well as in surprisingly remote areas such as the beaches of the Arctic and Antarctic, the summit of Mount Everest and the bottom of the Mariana Trench. 

According to Pennington, research has shown that high levels of exposure to microplastics can lead to slower growth and autism as well as heart and endocrine issues and even higher rates of mortality.

But the most dangerous aspect is how microplastics bioaccumulate in aquatic food chains. Microorganisms such plankton and filter-feeders sometimes become saturated with toxins, which then moves all the way up to apex predators. This does not only contaminate all the food humans we eat, but the water we drink too.

What causes it?

Pennington cites IUCN research from 2018 that pointed to the washing machine as a contributor to the problem: “The humble washing machine – more specifically the textiles that shed microfibers while being washed – is the world’s single biggest source of microplastic pollution.” 

But, how can something as simple as washing synthetic clothing have such an impact? 

Pennington explained that the tumbling of a washing machine shakes free tiny fibres in addition to removing dirt and stains. If these clothes contain plastics, as is the case of many synthetic materials today, these tiny fibres shaken free will contain microscopic particles that will be released into the environment through waste water. 

Pennington maintains that even those clothes that do not contain plastics pose a threat to the environment: “They all pose a risk to the environment due to the dyes and chemicals used in producing them, and their physical tendency to absorb contaminants in our waterways (i.e., chemicals, heavy metals, other pathogens).”

What’s being done? 

This comes back to the role of governments and regulations. Pennington emphasises the urgency of “promoting public awareness” and “moving toward rules and regulations” in order to eliminate the main sources of microplastic pollution. He says that an increasing number of governments are moving towards requiring new machines to be sold with microplastic filters, notably in France. “France has taken the lead, passing a law three years ago that will require all new washing machines to include microplastic filters beginning January 1, 2025. Parliamentary leaders in the UK and European Union are considering similar proposals.” 

Other local state and provincial governments in The United States and Canada are looking into similar legislation to protect the Great Lakes, a major source of drinking water. In another strategy, Pennington shared that legislators in the state of New Jersey are considering incentivising residents to purchase filters with rebates of up to $100. 

The goal of course is not to throw stones at appliance manufacturers, who Pennington sympathised with: “They are often torn between the  environmental threat and the risks of shouldering the cost to solve a problem that originates from the textile industry.” Pennington believes that governments are sensitive to the costs regulatory legislation implies for appliance makers.  

What makes CLEANR's microplastic filter a promising solution?

According to Pennington, the widespread adoption of CLEANR’s washing-machine filters in the EU and U.S. alone would eliminate “an amount of microfibers equivalent to over 280 million plastic bags from entering the waterways every year.”

CLEANR’s core technology allows higher water-flow rates (over 300%) compared to traditional sieve and crossflow designs. This means CLEANR filters can handle three times as many loads of laundry before needing to be cleaned. Pennington stated that the design “efficiently removes over 90% of microfibers down to 50-microns”.  

In addition to being more efficient, CLEANR has made a concerted effort to adapt to different appliance manufacturers. With both an external and an internal using the same core technology, the filter “requires no additional motors or pumps, it is smaller and far easier for washing manufacturers to integrate into smaller machines than other solutions, offering major cost saving and speed to market advantages.” This means minimal changes, making the filters much easier to deploy, as well as less expensive and with lower risks. 

The importance of technology in the fight against pollution

For Pennington, technology and innovation go hand in hand with stopping microplastic pollution at the source. CLEANR plans to continue to develop and optimise their technology with the vision of one day “having a microplastics filter in every washing machine around the globe.”

But technology doesn’t stop at microplastic pollution. Combined with critical thinking, it can be used to combat many problems related to pollution today. Pennington was categorical: “This mindset needs to be set throughout the entire industry working on pollution reduction and collection. Technology will be key in helping innovators, businesses, and governments solve nature’s biggest problems.”

Visitors to IFA can experience CLEANR’s innovations firsthand on their stand: Hall 2.2 / Stand 412.

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