We all know it: microfiber is another long-term problem like microplastic. And so far, we’ve only tried to prevent and reduce it even though microfiber shedding happens at a faster rate. While it’s a good thing to decrease the issue, it’d also help if we could do something else, wouldn’t it?
Well, that’s what Xeros Technology thought. The clean tech company has funded research that investigates how to upcycle the microfibers captured from laundry machines into a useful material.
The said research has developed a method that produces clean hydrogen and solid carbon nanomaterials that are applicable for different purposes, like an environmental packaging solution, batteries, solar cells and medical devices.
Potential replacement for plastic?
Lead researcher Melis S. Duyar said, “I noticed there wasn’t a clear technological solution to make them harmless to the environment.
“As a chemical and environmental engineer working to devise solutions to reach a circular economy, I was motivated to research whether we could use any of the tools at our disposal to utilize this emerging microfibre waste stream as a valuable feedstock in chemical reactions.”
Duyar, who is also a senior lecturer of chemical and process engineering at the University of Surrey, also stated that the team were also in the process of developing solutions to repurpose microplastics without further damaging the environment.
Meaning, the process won’t release fossil carbon into the atmosphere in the form of greenhouse gas emissions.
“Plastics are one of the problems associated with our dependency on fossil fuels, so any solution we develop to address plastics pollution must also fit within our strategy for reaching a net zero emission economy,” Duyar said.
So, the team applied a similar process to the microfibers, since the result of the upcycling would be a carbon material that can develop alternatives to plastics.
Should Xeros’ research be successful, all that microfiber accumulated in filters won’t be burned or tossed in landfills. Instead, it could provide an environmentally sustainable plastic substitute while also reducing microfiber pollution.
Estimate of how much microfiber we produce
Being smaller than 5mm (about 0.2 in), there’s no way of seeing these tiny threads. Different from looking at landfills or bigger waste, it’s hard to know just how much humans shed microfiber in each wash.
Researchers at Leeds’ School of Design created a model to measure it. They found that annually, the UK releases approximately between 6,860 and 17,847 tons. Think about 600 to 1,500 double-decker buses as the equivalent of those numbers.
Additionally, according to The Microfibre Consortium, the world releases more than half a million tons into the world’s oceans simply from cleaning our clothing.
Lead author of the Leeds study Alice Hazlehurst said, “Quantifying microfiber release is an important step in understanding the scale of the problem, as well as the potential impacts of this form of pollution.
“There are already lots of estimates out there, but these vary dramatically and it’s almost impossible to make meaningful comparisons.”
Hazlehurst stated that the team had used a reliable testing method to understand the differing microfiber release from different fabrics as well as varying washing conditions (size of the load and how much the machine shakes the clothes) in the lab.
This study used Gyrowash, a device that replicates a domestic washing machine in lab conditions.
The team tested 16 common fabrics, including polyester, cotton, blended materials, and compared different yarn types (knitted or woven fabrics). Per the academics, the worst type of fabric that releases microfiber is chenille polyester.
Through this method, the team were able to come up with a realistic scale of the release, so they claim.
Does wash setting affect microfiber release?
It’s been told to us before that when we use a lot of water during our clothes washing, we’ll release twice as much microfiber material. It is true that filling up our washing machine drum with more clothes reduces the release.
However, the Leeds researchers also argue that overfilling a washing machine can be not only a safety concern, but also risky to the quality of the wash.
Other than water, the times a washing machine shakes clothes around has an effect as well; the higher the number, the more significant the microfiber loss is.
Another interesting finding from the Leeds study is that microfiber shedding reduces substantially after a brand-new fabric’s first wash. To be specific, the reduction happens after three washes. The researchers stated that other estimates have been based on the results of new fabrics being washed.
Therefore, although the numbers both from The Microfibre Consortium and the Leeds study look massive, the Leeds researchers argue that microfiber release is not that problematic compared to waste issues from the fashion industry.
Per the researchers, the UK produces 365,000 tons of clothing that end up in landfills each year.
Dr. Mark Sumner, Lecturer in Leeds’School of Design said, “Ultimately, the research shows that fabric choice is complex and we shouldn’t assume some fabrics are worse than others”
Washing machines or filter we have now
While methods and processes to upcycle microfiber are still under development, tech companies have tried to mitigate the problem by making better filters or washing machines.
For example, Samsung and Patagonia revealed their Less Microfiber Cycle and Filter for washing machines. Both companies aim to reduce microfiber release during the laundry process and eventually reduce its pollution in bodies of water.
Xeros, on the other hand, has also developed a washing machine filtration device called the XFilter. The company stated that microfiber from synthetic textiles is one of the most significant sources of microplastic pollution in the world’s oceans.
XFilter lasts the lifetime of a washing machine. Moreover, users can simply throw away captured microfiber into trash bins just like any other household waste. Of course, that’ll change once we know how to recycle or upcycle microfiber.
Application development director of Xeros Dr. Paul Servin said, “There is nothing better than to convert what is today considered to be waste and a problem in the world into a highly valuable product.”
It would be wonderful if we had the right technology to process those tiny threads into something useful, just like what Dr. Servin said. Unfortunately, we still need time to get there.
In the meantime, we can always keep trying to reduce microfiber release from our home. Here are some ideas that may help you.
Not always a smooth process
Getting captured microfiber from filters and then turn them into useful materials may sound easy. However, this particular waste is a complex material to recycle, especially within recycling infrastructure that we have now. Because “not only are the microfibres often mixed materials, but they also contain captured dirt and soil,” as Xeros stated.
Hopefully, the company and its research will provide us with ways to reduce the problem as well as microfiber pollution in the future.
Duyar said, “This partnership with Xeros will allow us to bring our technology closer to commercialization by developing methods for upcycling real microfibre waste collected from commercially available filters.”
“We are excited to see our patent pending processes in action as applied to mixed fiber feedstocks, which is a big step toward developing a viable, real-world solution.”