Microfibers are a massive problem—but could they be a resource, as well?
Make no mistake, they’re a health and environmental blight. The mite-sized materials, which form when plastics or textiles disintegrate, are in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. In New Zealand, a “plastic mist” descends upon the city of Auckland every day, adding up to 74 metric tons of plastic each year, or the equivalent of roughly three million plastic bottles. Earlier this month, a study revealed that indoor air blasts every person with 2,675 airborne microplastic particles each year. Clothing made from polyester, as it turns out, is a significant source of the pollutants, though natural fibers laden with chemical dyes and finishes can also be a problem.
But where others see an invisible scourge, Melis Duyar sees an abundance of material no one is doing anything about.
Duyar, a senior lecturer of chemical and process engineering at the University of Surrey, has been watching washing machines emerge as both the problem and a potential solution. It’s somewhat of a no-brainer: Hundreds of thousands of tiny textile bits, both synthetic and natural, can slough off in a single cycle, gushing past wastewater filters and pouring into rivers and oceans.
Some companies are looking to stop microfibers from escaping from the garments in the first place. These include Zara owner Inditex, which joined forces with German chemical firm BASF in November to unveil a new laundry detergent that they say will slash microfiber shedding from textiles by up to 80 percent. Other brands are experimenting with different parameters—fiber composition, yarn twists, material density—to stave off shedding.
Another growing trend is the installation of microfiber filters, which France will mandate in all new laundry appliances in 2025. Lawmakers in the United Kingdom have been calling for a similar requirement, as have members of California’s state legislature.
Already, manufacturers like Xeros Technology and Electrolux have developed mesh-type devices meant to cut down on the invisible scourge. At CES in Las Vegas earlier this month, Patagonia and Samsung feted a washing machine that they have dubbed a “breakthrough in the fight against microplastics.” Its Less Microfiber Cycle, a new wash technology, cuts microplastic emissions by up to 54 percent, they said. The laundry system is also equipped with a Less Microfiber Filter, which blocks microfibers from “escaping into the ocean at the end of wash cycles.”
But what happens to the waste after that?
“When I started to think about what happens after you collect the fibers, I saw that they weren’t being utilized,” she said. “It was another waste that was being concentrated now, and could potentially make its way back to the environment if you were to landfill it.”
Duyar’s background is in carbon capture and utilization, but she saw parallels between the two issues. In August 2021, she received some seed funding to work with North Carolina State University. Together, the researchers tasked themselves with figuring out how to upcycle microfibers made of cotton, polyester and other materials without generating additional greenhouse-gas emissions. They developed a thermal process capable of converting mixed fiber feedstocks into clean hydrogen and solid carbon. The latter can be additionally processed to create carbon nanomaterials for various applications, including batteries, water purifiers, solar cells and medical devices, without the use of fossil fuels.
Doing this isn’t as easy as it sounds. Cotton, for one thing, behaves very differently from polyester. Actual microfiber waste also includes impurities like detergent, hair or dirt, which require special accommodation.
To apply the technology in real-world conditions, Duyar’s team reached out to Xeros, whose XFilter is designed to capture more than 90 percent of microfibers from both domestic and commercial washing machines. The South Yorkshire-based firm was immediately on board.
“We’ve been speaking with the French government and with the U.K. government,” said Paul Servin, who leads Xeros’s applications development team. “And the question that has always been raised is what happens to this new source of waste that is being generated?”
And it’s not just washing machines, Servin said. Tumble dryers and vacuum cleaners contain the same type of mixed fiber dross. All of these form parts of the same interconnected issue that Duyar’s research could potentially address.
“What is being considered to be a waste [could be] actually converted into a valuable product,” he said.
“What is advantageous for us is that we are starting to understand how these fibers behave—and these are the most common fibers that we’re going to see in the textile waste,” Duyar said. “So that gives us an opportunity to be able to handle variability and feedstock because we know that they’re going to be largely consisting of either natural fibers or synthetic fibers that we have studied individually.”
Over the next 12 months, Duyar’s team will work with Xeros to study microfiber waste that a household would actually produce and in doing so gain a “full sense” of the problem. The goal, she said, is to move some of their ideas from a lab environment into a more commercially applicable landscape.
“We have a very ambitious aim, which is to take something that’s variable and is harmful to the environment if left uncollected and transform that into a useful material—with ‘useful’ being the key word here,” Duyar said. By the end of the year, she hopes to achieve “some level of selectivity” in what they produce, while honing a technique that requires minimal cost and energy use.
This is a near-term solution, Servin admitted. In an ideal world, microfibers wouldn’t be a problem in the first place. “Long-term solutions will of course be that there will be material changes taking place for the textile industry,” he said. “But how long that conversion will take is a big, big question mark.”
Until microfiber pollution stops being an issue, Servin said, efforts like Duyar’s are necessary.
“We don’t know what the business case will be at the end of the project, but we’re aiming for something that generates a huge amount of value from something that was a big waste issue before,” Duyar said.