Reusable Laundry Filter Captures 90% of Microfibers

PlanetCare's filter is easily installed on the outside of a washing machine.

PlanetCare filters
PlanetCare filters – clean on the left, dirty on the right.

PlanetCare

In 2016 Mojca Zupan visited a special exhibit on microplastic fibers in her hometown of Ljubljana, Slovenia. It ended up changing the course of her professional life. After learning about the severity of the pollution problem, Zupan left her job as a corporate lawyer to found PlanetCare, a company that produces a reusable microfiber filter for household use.

Microfibers are tiny plastic particles that range in size from 1 nanometer to 5 millimeters. When a garment is laundered, the churning and vibration of the washing machine, combined with the friction from other clothes, causes fibers to dislodge from the fabric and enter the wash water. While this happens to all material types, whether natural or synthetic, it's the synthetic microfibers that are of greatest concern, as they're essentially made from non-biodegradable plastic. It's estimated that an average-sized 13-pound (6-kg) load of laundry releases 700,000 microfibers.

The microfiber-filled water moves from the washing machine into the household wastewater stream and, even though it may pass through a treatment facility, most microfibers cannot filtered out at that stage; even if they are, wastewater treatment facilities generate sludge that farmers will often collect to spread on agricultural fields, thus speeding up the proliferation of microfibers in the natural environment. Meanwhile, it's estimated that 35% of all microplastics in the oceans originated in washing machines.

Enter Zupan's clever invention – the PlanetCare filter. Designed for easy installation on the outside of a washing machine, it connects to the water supply and collects up to 90% of a wash load's fibers inside a sealed cartridge. After 20 loads, the cartridge is swapped out for a fresh one, while the old one is dried and kept until the user has refilled the box that was sent to them by PlanetCare. This gets shipped back to the company, which removes the microfibers, cleans the cartridges, and refurbishes them for reuse. Each cartridge can be used up to six times.

PlanetCare washing machine with filter
Washing machine with filter mounted on side. PlanetCare 

As Zupan explained to Treehugger in an interview over Skype, it's designed to be a closed system that prevents the user from coming into contact with the fibers – similar to a Brita water filter. "We don't want people rinsing their filters in the sink," she said, as that would defeat the purpose.

What does PlanetCare do with all those fibers? Right now, because the filter is only 2.5 years old and has been adopted by 1,000 households or so, PlanetCare is just collecting the fibers and saving them for when it has enough to start experimenting with potential solutions. These solutions could include partially melting and reforming them into insulation panels for washing machines (an interesting idea that brings the fibers full-circle) or using it in car upholstery. 

As chemist and chief science officer Andrej Kržan explained, PlanetCare is avoiding incineration and landfill at all costs. He told Treehugger that they'd like to find a solution where the waste fibers have a value of their own, similar to Adidas' partnership with environmental group Parley for the Oceans, which is making running shoes from recycled ocean plastic. "We'll like to find a way for our fibers to be used and seen, while giving added value to a product and our story," Kržan said.

Not everyone supports the idea of household filtering. Eco-toxicologist Mark Browne from the University of New South Wales in Australia said there's not enough research to back up claims that domestic filters are effective. Kevin Messner, a vice-president of the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers that advises washing machine manufacturers, called it a "feel-good solution that practically won't solve the problem."

But where else is a concerned individual supposed to start? The washing machine is the one place through which all garments must pass at some point; it's a logical point at which to try to contain pollution. In Kržan's words, "At that point we have fibers not mixed with organic matter and other things, but in a relatively clean stream of water. Once you get fibers in the environment, I can't imagine any way to get them back." (via CNN)

Zupan has likened laundry filters to catalytic converters on cars, which filter harmful pollutants such as carbon monoxide out of exhaust fumes. Similar measures should be required on all washing machines – and that change is bound to come, made apparent by France's decision to outfit every new washing machine with a microfiber filter by 2025. Additionally, unless there's a consumer product on the market, how else will broader policy changes come about? Zupan told Treehugger,

"If you don't get the product out there, and you don't have people using it, then you can't move policymakers. We need to change the way we wash forever and the only way to do that is to put it on the market."

PlanetCare is scaling up, slowly but surely, aided by surging interest in the microplastic pollution problem. Right now most of its filters are used in Europe, with the highest uptake in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, and some in the United States. Once it has 3,000 users in the U.S. it plans to deploy a mobile refurbishing unit, based out of a shipping container, that would give American and Canadian customers a closer location to send used cartridges.

It's a tough problem to crack because nobody wants to take responsibility for it. As Zupan told Bloomberg recently, "Washing machine producers say they aren’t the source, which is true. But the fashion industry doesn't want to own it. Then there’s the textile industry, the chemical industry — you can go back and back." But the fact remains that it does have to be dealt with, and unless everyone is going to start buying all-natural clothing (unrealistic), it's only going to get worse. 

PlanetCare's filter is the best option we've got at this point, and both Zupan and Kržan are thinking big in terms of expansion. Bloomberg reports that the company is "expanding its retrofit business with help from a recently secured 1.6 million euro ($1.9 million) grant from the European Commission, while also seeking to close a 700,000 euro private investment round by the end of this year." 

PlanetCare, which was named best product on the market by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, is a name you're probably going to hear a lot more in years to come, so you might as well get ahead of the curve and order your own starter set of 7 cartridges (a typical six-month supply) for $112. "Those of us who can afford to [be early adopters] have an obligation to do so," Zupan said over Skype, and she is right.