Guppy Friend traps plastic fibers from synthetic clothes that would otherwise get released into the environment.
When Alexander Nolte and Oliver Spies first learned about the plastic pollution generated by washing synthetic clothes, they were deeply alarmed. Sporting gear is their business. As co-owners of an outdoor apparel store in Germany and avid surfers, they felt a keen responsibility to find a solution to what has been called “the biggest environmental problem you’ve never heard of.”
Nolte and Spies have developed a special laundry bag called Guppy Friend. The idea behind Guppy Friend is to contain synthetic clothing within a mesh bag that lets in soapy water while trapping any plastic fibers that are loosened during the wash. Once the cycle is complete, you remove the clothes from the bag, scrape out the fibers, which stick to the white nylon background, and dispose of them in the trash.Theirs is the first such device marketed and produced to prevent microfiber pollution – a massive problem that is only just entering the public’s awareness. The Guardian writes:
“Synthetic fibers are problematic because they do not biodegrade, and tend to bind with molecules of harmful chemical pollutants found in wastewater, such as pesticides or flame retardants. Plus, fibers from apparel are often coated with chemicals to achieve performance attributes such as water resistance. Studies have shown health problems among plankton and other small organisms that eat microfibers, which then make their way up the food chain.”
What people don’t realize is how many fibers are released with every wash. Numbers on Guppy Friend’s website reveal that every city of 100,000 residents releases a wash-related volume of microfibers that’s equivalent to 15,000 plastic bags. That means that a city the size of Berlin is releasing enough microfibers to make more than half a million plastic bags daily.
When Nolte and Spies’ research first began, it caught the attention of Patagonia, which had commissioned a major study in 2015 on microfiber pollution and has acknowledged its own problematic position as a retailer of synthetic clothing. Patagonia gave the pair a grant for US $108,000 in return for being the first retailer to sell Guppy Friend. A Kickstarter campaign last fall raised another $30,000. Apparently other stores have requested the bag, too, which is likely to retail in the U.S. around $20-$30.
Currently the bags are being produced in Portugal, but Nolte told TreeHugger in an email that there is no release date yet. Patagonia will be the first to get them, and they will be sold through Guppy Friend's website and Langbrett, the outdoor retailer co-owned by the two men. Nolte wrote:
“The whole bag is made out of a non-dyed, untreated material. At the end of its lifecycle you have to take out the zipper and can re-use the material completely.”
There are still other questions to ask, however, such as what happens to the microfiber waste once it’s put in the trash? It might not end up in the ocean right away, but it will go into the ground, where it could continue to accumulate chemicals, contaminate the surrounding soil, and be ingested by animals. Clearly this is a problem that must be considered by shoppers when making choices about new clothing.
Will people be willing to add yet another step to an already burdensome laundry routine? That depends. Stanford University researcher Nik Sawe says that emotions must influence behavior: “If Guppy Friend can appeal to consumers’ feelings around the negative impacts of microfiber pollution, it might be able to elicit them to [purchase] the bag.”
Perhaps the manifesto of Guppy Friend's non-profit offshoot, Stop! Micro Waste, will inspire shoppers to take action:
I’ll fight convenience and avoid single use plastic. I won’t wash synthetic garments without filtering the wastewater. I’ll reuse all valuable materials. I’ll separate waste. I’ll repair before I buy new stuff. I’ll be critical towards misleading advertising. I know I don´t need much and focus on the essential. I acknowledge that my contribution to protect nature matters.
Until washing machines and wastewater treatment facilities can be outfitted with proper filters, and shoppers are willing to transition to fewer synthetics in their wardrobe, Guppy Friend sounds like the best interim solution we’ve got. I’ll certainly be lining up to purchase one as soon as they’re available.