From filters to bags to balls, the number of products aimed at stopping the torrent of microplastic fibres being flushed out of washing machines and into rivers and oceans is increasing rapidly.
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.
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.”
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.
One stood out, Xfiltra, which prevented 78% of microfibres from going down the drain. The company is focused on providing the technology to manufacturers to integrate into washing machines. The scientists tested two other devices that can be retrofitted to machines – the Lint LUV-R and Planet Care filter systems – but these trapped only 25% and 29% of fibres respectively.
The three other products tested were used in the washing machine drum. The Guppyfriend washing bag, into which clothes are placed, collected 54% of microfibres, while a prototype washing bag from Fourth Element trapped only 21% of fibres. The last product tested was a single Cora ball, the stalks of which ensnared 31% of the fibres, though more than one ball could be used.
Prof Richard Thompson, who works at the University of Plymouth and was part of the testing team, cautioned that filters would not solve the problem of plastic microfibres alone. “We have also shown that around 50% of all fibre emission occurs while people are wearing the clothing,” he told the Guardian. “Also, most of the human population don’t have a washing machine.
“As with nearly all the current problems associated with plastic [pollution], the problem is best fixed by more comprehensive consideration at the design stage,” he said. “We need to design these in order to minimise the rate of emission, which should also make the clothing last longer and hence be more sustainable.”
A dozen groups working on better fabrics were recently shortlisted as finalists in a $650,000 (£482,000) microfibre innovation challenge being run by Conservation X Labs. AlgiKnit is creating biodegradable yarns from kelp, a type of seaweed, while Orange Fiber in southern Italy is making fabrics from the byproducts of citrus juice production.
Another finalist, Squitex, has developed a protein originally found in the tentacles of squid. The company says it is the world’s fastest self-healing material and can be made into fibres for textiles and coatings that reduce microfibre shedding.
Cotton, as a natural material, is biodegradable, but its production often involves the overuse of water and pesticides. The Better Cotton Initiative, which covers more than 20% of global cotton production, recently announced a target of cutting carbon emissions per tonne of cotton by 50% by 2030, compared with 2017. Further additional targets covering pesticide use, soil health, smallholder livelihoods and women’s empowerment are expected by the end of 2022.
Tiny plastic particles in the lungs of pregnant rats pass rapidly into the hearts, brains and other organs of their foetuses, research shows. It is the first study in a live mammal to show that the placenta does not block such particles.
The health impact of tiny plastic particles in the body is as yet unknown. But scientists say there is an urgent need to assess the issue, particularly for developing foetuses and babies, as plastics can carry chemicals that could cause long-term damage.
Prof Phoebe Stapleton, at Rutgers University, who led the rat research, said: “We found the plastic nanoparticles everywhere we looked – in the maternal tissues, in the placenta and in the foetal tissues. We found them in the foetal heart, brain, lungs, liver and kidney.”
Dunzhu Li, at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) in Ireland and not part of the study team, said: “This study is very important because it proves the potential to transfer [plastic particles] in mammal pregnancy – maybe it is happening from the very beginning of human life as well. The particles were found almost everywhere in the foetus and can also pass through the blood-brain barrier – it is very shocking.”
Prof John Boland, also at TCD, said: “It is however important not to over-interpret these results. The nanoparticles used are near spherical in shape, whereas real microplastics are irregular flake-like objects. Shape matters, as it dictates how particles interact with their environment.” In October, Li, Boland and colleagues showed that babies fed formula milk in plastic bottles are swallowing millions of particles a day.
The rat study was published in the journal Particle and Fibre Toxicology and involved placing nanoparticles in the trachea of the animals. Stapleton said the number of particles used was estimated to be the equivalent of 60% of the number a human mother would be exposed to in a day, although Li’s opinion was that this estimate was too high.
The 20 nanometre beads used were made of polystyrene, which is one of the top five plastics found in the environment, said Stapleton. They were marked with a fluorescent chemical to enable them to be identified. A separate experiment showed that the nanoparticles crossed the placenta about 90 minutes after the mothers were exposed.
Twenty four hours after exposure, the weight of the foetuses was an average of 7% lower than in control animals, and placental weights were 8% lower. Weight loss was also seen in other experiments using titanium dioxide particles. The rats were exposed to the plastic nanoparticles on day 19 of gestation, two days ahead of the usual time for birth and when the foetus is gaining the most weight.
“Our working theory is that something in the maternal vasculature changes, so you get a reduction in blood flow, which in turn leads to a reduction in nutrient and oxygen delivery,” said Stapleton.
She said more research was needed: “This study answers some questions and opens up other questions. We now know the particles are able to cross into the foetal compartment, but we don’t know if they’re lodged there or if the body just walls them off, so there’s no additional toxicity.”
Stapleton said the nanoparticles used in her research were a million times smaller than the microplastics found in human placentas, and therefore currently much more challenging to identify in human studies. “But we know nanoparticles have greater toxicity than the microparticles of the same chemical, as smaller particles get deeper into the lungs.”
The next step for the researchers is to place the rats in an “inhalation chamber”, where the particles can be breathed in, rather than being placed in the trachea. This also allows the assessment of chronic exposure, in which lower doses are given over longer periods, rather than one large dose.
Previous research in rats has shown that silver and carbon nanoparticles pass from mother to foetus and harm health. In humans, gold nanoparticles breathed in were then found in the blood and urine of volunteers and were still present after three months.
If you peer into the gutters of any big Nigerian city, a filthy sight awaits you: Floating cans, nylon water sachets, empty bottles and other waste materials discarded by humans, swept there by rain, gathering and clogging up the drain.
This is not only a Nigerian problem, it is a global challenge. The world continues to writhe under the burden of waste management. In 2019, the Global Material Footprint (the amount of raw material including fossil fuels, biomass and metal and non-metal ore, extracted to meet total consumption demand), according to the United Nations, was 85.9 billion tonnes – up from 73.2 billion tonnes 10 years before. Meanwhile, the world’s electronics waste – namely discarded smartphones, tablets and other electronic devices – grew by 38 percent in that same year.
Today, March 18, the world celebrates Global Recycling Day with the theme #RecyclingHeroes to draw attention to “the people, places and activities that showcase what an important role recycling plays in contributing to an environmentally stable planet and a greener future which will benefit all”.
In Nigeria, “wastepreneurs” are providing an answer to this by taking waste straight from the dump, transforming it and redefining its purpose. These innovators work with different materials – water sachets, scrap metal, bottles, plastic, tyres and more – with many of them learning on the job, how to manipulate these objects, to make “beauty out of ashes”. These entrepreneurs ask: “If you can recycle it, why waste it?”
Ade Dagunduro: ‘Not trash, but a thing of beauty’
Surrounded by art pieces in his gallery in Dugbe at the heart of Ibadan, Ade Dagunduro, 34, takes us through his creative journey. A graduate of Fine Art from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, his desire to push the boundaries of what he learned within the walls of a university spurred him to take up more training in painting and sculpture.
“School was more theoretical, less practical. When you get out of school and into the real world, you realise there is much more to learn,” he says.
Art has “changed his life”, he adds, and, now, he can help improve life a little for others by taking waste from the streets to make art.
Originally working with regular art materials such as paint, clay and wood, five years ago, Dagunduro decided to challenge himself by thinking beyond those.
“I wanted to see if I could actually think outside the box. I asked myself if I could be more creative,” he says. In his quest to do this, Dagunduro learned to manipulate waste materials like used tyres, which would otherwise be burned – a common cause of pollution in Nigeria.
His first work with waste in 2016 was an ox made out of a tyre, called The Challenge. These days, he also works with metal, ropes and plastic which he finds on the streets in his community. Sometimes, people bring materials to his studio.
“Our environment can now smile because we have people like us trying to ease off its burden by picking the waste off its shoulders. These days, you hardly find cartons, for instance, littering the streets. Humans are exhausting the forests. Now we need more paper, so we have to start recycling what we see on the street,” he says.
Dagunduro’s latest work, titled Torso, is a female form made from dismantled motorcycle chains – which he picked up from a motorcycle mechanic’s workshop – welded together.
“You first craft with clay, then you take the mould which has been constructed and cast it out with cement. After that, you allow it to dry and then ‘liberate’ it out of the clay. So now that it is out, the pattern is already printed on the mould, and you can begin welding the metal around it, which is done in batches. After that, you couple the metal pieces together.”
Dagunduro says this is then followed by cleaning and shining, to prevent rust and preserve the artwork.
The motorcycle chains that would have been thrown on a dump now stand as a sculpture, in the far-right corner of Ade Dag Art Gallery, waiting to be bought; “waiting to re-enter the world that discarded it, not as trash but as a thing of beauty,” he says.
KUALA LUMPUR/NAIROBI, – As COVID-19 forces businesses worldwide to reinvent themselves, social entrepreneurs are getting creative to help communities hit hard by the pandemic – from a Ugandan medicine-on-wheels service to upcycled face masks made by vulnerable women in Peru.
While recessions and falling revenue are affecting ethical businesses too, many such companies are proving particularly adept at innovating and finding new opportunities.
“Social innovation is the DNA of social entrepreneurs,” said Vincent Otieno Odhiambo, regional director for Ashoka East Africa, a non-profit working with social enterprises – businesses aiming to do good while making a profit.
“They are accustomed to tackling complex social problems and therefore design innovative solutions that create better conditions of life,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation to mark Social Enterprise Day on Thursday.
Started by Social Enterprise UK, the sector’s trade body in Britain, and held annually on the third Thursday of November, the day aims to highlight the sector’s global impact. The campaign has since expanded to other parts of the world.
“We have seen them tackle perennial challenges ranging from access to healthcare and education, remote working, economic resilience all the way to transparency or fighting fake news,” Otieno Odhiambo said.
As movement curbs remain in place across many cities, a surge in online deliveries has led to a mountain of plastic waste, prompting Malaysia’s The Hive Bulk Foods to start collecting discarded packaging for reuse.
The social enterprise, a zero-waste chain selling products from refugees and local organic farmers, said items like bubble wrap quickly filled up its warehouse. It donates the packaging to other businesses so it can be used again.
“We realised everyone on the planet was also ordering online and that online packaging was delivered with an insane amount of plastic waste, often more plastic waste than the goods delivered,” said founder Claire Sancelot.
“We just want to prove that despite the pandemic we can change the business model and move to a more circular economy.”
In Peru’s capital Lima, Valery Zevallos – who founded an ethical fashion brand called Estrafalario that employs poor women, female prisoners and domestic violence survivors – knew she had to adapt as shopping mall sales plunged during lockdown.
She started a new line of handmade face masks made from recycled materials, working with nearly 40 women. So far, they have sold more than 26,000 masks and donated some to community groups and female inmates.
“We had to think out of the box,” said the 30-year-old designer, adding that the company’s online clothes sales have jumped 400% as customers go to its website to buy the masks.
“It’s a win-win. We sell clothes and they earn,” she said.
In Africa, where the pandemic has strained fragile healthcare systems and made it even harder for people to get to medical centres and pharmacies, Uganda’s Kaaro Health started sending its nurses to treat patients at home.
The company, which offers pre-natal check-ups and child immunisations at its solar-powered container clinics, also put its technicians on motorbikes, mounted with refrigerated clinic kits, to collect medical samples and deliver prescriptions.
Across the border in Kenya, CheckUps Medical, which offers remote diagnostic and pharmacy services, has trained motorbike taxi drivers to identify people in need of medication or teleconsultation in remote areas.
‘BUILDING BACK BETTER’
Like other pandemic-hit businesses, social enterprises have struggled financially this year but their swift response could spur big business into more collaborations and a rethink of dominant business models.
“What COVID-19 has shown us is that the massively complicated international supply chains are really fragile when you have a pandemic,” said Tristan Ace, who leads the British Council’s social enterprise programme in Asia.
“One positive outcome that we have seen is corporates starting to incorporate social enterprise in their local areas more, more than just relying on the global supply chains.”
Yet major industry players and governments will have to take the lead – such as changing procurement practices and encouraging more impact investing – as the solutions offered by social enterprises are often small-scale.
“As economies begin to recover, we need to think about the big levers that will support the delivery of positive impact at scale, which should be led by big businesses and governments,” said Louise Aitken from Ākina, a New Zealand consultancy working with social enterprises and corporates.
“This is beyond building back better, it’s actually about building impact into our recovery,” the chief executive said.
The River Thames has some of the highest recorded levels of microplastics for any river in the world.
Scientists have estimated that 94,000 microplastics per second flow down the river in places.
The quantity exceeds that measured in other European rivers, such as the Danube and Rhine.
Tiny bits of plastic have been found inside the bodies of crabs living in the Thames.
And wet wipes flushed down the toilet are accumulating in large numbers on the shoreline.
Researchers at Royal Holloway, University of London, are calling for stricter regulations on the labelling and disposal of plastic products.
They warn that careless disposal of plastic gloves and masks during the coronavirus pandemic might make the problem of plastic pollution worse.
“Taken together these studies show how many different types of plastic, from microplastics in the water through to larger items of debris physically altering the foreshore, can potentially affect a wide range of organisms in the River Thames,” said Prof Dave Morritt from Royal Holloway.
“The increased use of single-use plastic items, and the inappropriate disposal of such items, including masks and gloves, along with plastic-containing cleaning products, during the current Covid-19 pandemic, may well exacerbate this problem.”
The scientists point out that the Thames is cleaner than it used to be with respect to some pollutants, such as trace metals.
What plastics were found in the River?
Many forms of microplastics were found in the Thames, including glitter, microbeads from cosmetics and plastic fragments from larger items.
The bulk of the microplastics came from the break-down of large plastics, with food packaging thought to be a significant source.
“Flushable” wet wipes were found in high abundance on the shoreline forming “wet wipe reefs”.
Study researcher, Katherine McCoy, said, “Our study shows that stricter regulations are needed for the labelling and disposal of these products. There is great scope to further research the impacts of microplastics and indeed microfibres on Thames organisms.”
Where does the plastic come from?
Fibres from washing machine outflows and potentially from sewage outfalls, plus fragments from the breakup of larger plastics, such as packaging items and bottles, which are washed into the river.
Katharine Rowley of Royal Holloway said it’s unclear why there’s such a high density of plastic in the River Thames, but called for people to think about the plastic they use and throw away.
“People can make much more of a difference than they might think,” she said.
What is the plastic doing to wildlife in the river?
Some animals living in the river are ingesting microplastics, including two species of crab.
Crabs contained tangled plastic in their stomachs, including fibres and microplastics from sanitary pads, balloons, elastic bands and carrier bags.
“Tangles of plastic were particularly prevalent in the invasive Chinese mitten crab and we still don’t fully understand the reason for this.”
Clams near the wet wipe “reefs” contained synthetic polymers, some of which may have originated from the wet wipes and other pollutants found on the site such as sanitary items.
How do the findings compare with other rivers?
Much of the work on microplastics has been carried out in seas and oceans rather than rivers.
By comparison, the Thames has higher quantities of microplastics than levels recorded in the Rhine in Germany, the Danube in Romania, the River Po in Italy and the Chicago River in the US.
However, levels appear lower than those reported for China’s Yangzte river.
Other scientists previously tested river sediments at 40 sites throughout Greater Manchester and found “microplastics everywhere”.
The latest research was carried out in collaboration with the Natural History Museum and Zoological Society, London.
Dr Paul Clark of the Natural History Museum said, “What our students have shown in this collaboration is that although the Thames is certainly cleaner with regards some chemical pollutants, eg. heavy metals, the River is severely polluted with plastic. And once again our wildlife is threatened.”
The research is reported in two papers in Environmental Pollution and in one paper in Science of the Total Environment.
GULU, Uganda,- When the Ugandan government ordered all non-essential workplaces shut to contain the coronavirus pandemic in late March, Peter Okwoko and his colleague Paige Balcom kept working.
But the pair – who had been turning collected plastic waste into building materials since last year – shifted gear and instead began manufacturing makeshift plastic face shields from discarded plastic bottles.
When they posted pictures of their prototypes on social media, they got a surprise phone call from the local public hospital.
“The doctor from Gulu regional referral hospital requested we make 10 face shield masks urgently because they didn’t have enough” and the hospital had just received its first COVID-19 patient, said Okwoko, 29, a co-founder of Takataka Plastics.
The social enterprise set to work shredding plastic, melting it and shaping the liquid plastic into face shields and frames. Soon a first set of shields was delivered.
But “in the afternoon, the hospital called again. They said they needed more face shields because the previous ones had worked out well for them”, Okwoko said.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to burn around the world, it has also caused severe disruptions in supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
The problem is particularly severe in poorer countries with few resources to pay high prices in a competitive global market. In March, WHO officials urged companies around the world to increase production by 40% if possible to meet growing demand.
In Uganda, medical workers have discussed work boycotts to protest the lack of protective equipment in hospitals, especially after several healthcare workers were confirmed infected with the virus.
“The situation is critical. Many people are working without PPE,” Dr. Mukuzi Muhereza, secretary general for the country’s health workers’ body, the Uganda Medical Association, warned last week.
“That is hampering the fight against COVID-19 because there’s fear among health workers that anytime I touch a patient I might be a COVID patient myself,” he said.