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article imageOp-Ed: Are your socks trying to kill you? Of course they are! Special

By Paul Wallis     Nov 14, 2017 in Environment
Washington - The new story in the ongoing How to Totally Mismanage a Planet saga is microfibers. Lots of microfibers from laundry, plastic or as bad as plastic, and they’re taking over the world. Inspiring, huh?
The really good news is that all this micro plastic is finding its way in to the oceans and drinking water, (like everything else) and contaminating food. A certain percentage of the fish and sea food you eat is in fact micro fibers. Most people ingest say roughly the equivalent of a shopping bag every so often.
That’s not good for you. You may be what you eat, but eating plastic won’t turn you in to Barbie or Ken. It may, however, just get around to killing you when it has time. Plastic isn’t good for you, and can contain toxic compounds.
The problems
Benjamin Von Wong, photographer extraordinaire and environmental issue-raiser par excellence, has been talking to Georgetown University physics lecturer Professor George Slakey about the problems.
The problem with laundry is the physical reduction of plastics in clothes. Washing machines do damage to clothing at the micro level. Small fibers shear off in the wash, and head straight for the sea, catchments, etc. The fibers include nylon, Spandex, and the inevitable polymers in most modern clothing. There’s about 4 generations of plastics to clean up.
Solutions wanted, ASAP
The plastic issue isn’t new, but the problems are getting serious. 94% of American drinking water contains plastic. (Goes well with the lead, etc. in those antiquated water systems, too, a real liquid diet of dreck.) The sheer quantity of microfibers alone is enough to be dangerous. The solution is also pretty straightforward – A machine which captures microfibers in the wash.
…Except there’s no such thing on the market. Nobody has yet invented a washing machine capable of collecting these fibers and preventing them from getting released in to the environment.
There are things like Guppy Friend and Cora Ball, which are put in with your wash and able to deal with catching fibers in the wash, but we’re a long way short of universal usage. Meanwhile, a single piece of synthetic clothing can release 250,000 microfibers per wash. That’s a good argument for a built-in filter. Consider how much material commercial laundries alone must generate every hour of every day, and a macro-system solution is required.
The really good news is that somebody is working on a filter. Students working with Prof. Slakey are progressing their research in to a filter to capture the fibers in the wash. That’s no minor achievement.
Yes, there are commercial hurdles
The problem with installing an new filter is that it needs to be basically adaptable to any kind of washer. That’s a lot of different machines. The filter has to be commercially viable, too.
Interestingly, that may not be much of an issue commercially. Fortunately, products do have a strong market.
© Benjamin Von Wong
Environmental values DO drive sales. Most manufacturers are much more conscious than global policies, too, another plus. However insane and apathetic global leadership may be, environmental issues do have resonance with the public.
So the students have started a movement to raise awareness in industry and among consumers. They’re only at the startup stage. I don’t know if they’re thinking of Kickstarter or some other option, but they’ll need a working prototype to circulate among manufacturers.
They’ll also need to manage their intellectual property well to retain a say in how their invention is used. A patent, for example, would help as a negotiating tool, and fund further follow-up research. It’s a great idea which deserves belt and suspenders support in the market.
The macro environment and plastics
Another gigantic issue is the macro system problem. Big drainage systems contain any amount of plastics. Theoretically, a molecular filter/membrane can do the filtering. This is a type of filter which lets through water and stops everything else.
Other wastes can be caught too, but obviously this requires a new class of filtration and design. The membrane filters have been around for about 30 years. They’re used to turn waste water in to drinking water, and they’re pretty close to the standard required to remove plastics.
This multi-stage filtering approach is the best practice simplest way to manage water, and it can be used for specific pollutants like plastics.
So the net effect is:
1. Filtering at source, like washing machines, and maybe even taps.
2. Filtering in water systems, both to and from water sources.
3. Outfall management done properly for a change, trying for 100% pollution-free water at discharge and in water systems.
One thing for damn sure – This problem isn’t going to solve itself any time soon. The potential damage is unquantifiable. The dietary damage alone, to people and everything on the planet, hasn’t even been properly assessed.
If you’d like to attract attention to this issue through your local or international manufacturers, here’s a form to do that with, created by Benjamin Von Wong and team.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about plastic microfibers, ocean plastics, plastics in drinking water in the US, filtering plastics in washing machines, cora ball
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