New washing machine filter reduces plastic microfibres

Students at the University of Exeter have developed a new filter than can degrade and dissolve plastic microfibres that come off clothes in washing machines.

According to a press release from the University of Exeter, every wash cycle releases hundreds of thousands of microplastic fibres. Some estimate that more than a third of microplastics in the oceans are though to originate from clothing.

“Synthetic fibres such as polyester and nylon make up about 60% of clothing material worldwide,” said University of Exeter student Rachael Quintin-Baxendale. “Microfibres released during washing flow into our oceans, tap water, the food we eat and even the air we breathe.”

Quintin-Baxendale and nine other Exeter students set out to address this global environmental and health problem by developing a ‘smart filter’ that catches microfibres and uses a set of enzymes to break down plastic into two by-products that are safe to be released into the water system. While the two compounds can be toxic at high concentrations, the volume of water released during a wash is enough to dilute them to safe level.

The team of student engineers, physicists, bioscientists, natural scientists and a computer scientist are now working with partners, including washing machine producer Miele, to put the filter into production.

“Our smart filter, designed to be fitted to the outlet of household washing machines, catches about 75% of these fibres and breaks them down,” explained Quintin-Baxendale.

“Degrading larger pieces of plastic this way would normally take a long time, but these microfibres are so small that we aim to fully degrade them between washes. We are currently experimenting with different enzymatic concentrations to find the optimal conditions for this to occur.”

The students are also developing an app that would allow people to monitor and manage their filter.

“The app will also allow the sharing of data, which will be analysed to increase the efficiency of our enzyme and help reduce plastic pollution,” said team member Lydia Pike. She added that filters based on similar principles could perhaps be used in places like clothing factories and water treatment plants, too.

Image credit: Steve Buissinne via Pixabay

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