Plastic has no place in our oceans, but that’s where a huge amount ends up. Although we’ve seen images of plastic waste floating in the surf and washing up on beaches, the real danger lurks below the surface.
According to National geographic, there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean. But the most staggering statistic is the four billion microplastics per square kilometer that litter the ocean depths.
This not only has serious consequences for the ocean ecosystems and marine life that ingest these microscopic particles, but also for human life through the seafood we consume. A recent study published by Hull York Medical School found that those tiny plastic particles we ingest actually cause damage to human cells.
While such studies make headlines today, five years ago the extent of the problem was still relatively unknown to the public. An avid diver and lover of the ocean, Adam Root came to find out about it through a series of talks organized by conservation groups he attended in Bristol during the summer of 2017.
Root is also a mechanical engineer by training, and the discussions left him shocked at the environmental damage being done, but also inspired to use his engineering skills to do something about it.
“I started by mapping all the ways plastic enters the ocean and found that the greatest proportion of a nautical mile is microplastic. I then researched what was being done about it and the answer that revealed itself to me was very little because once it enters our waterways and the ocean it is technically very difficult to remove so it had to be stopped at the source,” explains Root.
Get out in the wash
Further research has revealed that most microplastics are generated by the process of washing clothes. It’s the tiny strands of plastic thread, less than 5mm long, that break off from synthetic fabrics when washing.
He says, “A washing machine is like a cheese grater on the inside. Every time you wash something, it breaks it down a bit. In the UK we have 24 million household washing machines, each producing around one gram of microplastic per wash. This equates to 14 to 16 tons per day of materials being thrown down the drain. If it’s a flood scenario where we have heavy rains, which happens about 400,000 times a year, that water goes straight out without being filtered in sewage treatment plants. It then makes its way into our rivers and into the ocean.
In July 2017, Root quit his job as a senior design engineer at Dyson, where he worked on product innovation. He readily admits it was a scary decision because, although he enjoyed his time at the company, which he had joined five years earlier as a graduate design engineer, he wanted to use his design experience of household items to create a sort of filter for the wash. machines capable of capturing microplastics.
He started his own design consultancy called Inheriting Earth, which provided him with income. He then put together a pitch and with it won a “Will It Work?” of £250. grant from the Prince’s Trust. With this money, he built a platform using a bucket, wood and an old washing machine that he had dismantled.
He explains: “I placed the bucket on a small oak table that I had built. I put the washing machine pump inside the bucket, which pushed the water through the microplastic filter I had made and thus drained the clean water into the bucket. This created a small circular loop. To mimic microplastic, I shredded the elastic from a pair of pants — which basically happens inside a washing machine — and sprinkled it in water.
Although rudimentary, the rig has proven its modernized washing machine filter to work. From there, things started to escalate for Root. He received Innovate UK’s Innovator of the Year award in 2018 and that year he was also invited to represent the UK at the G7 summit in Canada. He also attracted investment, which enabled him to hire his first two employees, one of whom was fellow engineer Reuben Kettle Aiers who had worked with Root at Dyson, and together they developed the prototype.
(Credit: Sam Gibson)
Four years later, Matter (of which Inheriting Earth is the holding company) operates from a warehouse near Bristol city centre. It’s a sprawling space featuring an open-plan office, an R&D center separated by a large curtain, and what looks like a laundry room with various clothes draped over clotheslines. “We perform thousands and thousands of cycles to ensure that our filter is not only efficient but also robust. So one of the benefits of working here is that you do your laundry for free,” smiles Root.
Behind the curtain, the R&D lab is equipped with various technologies and 3D printers as well as all the prototypes that were created and iterated on the journey to the final product. Root explains, “We developed our own design process using pretty much the Technology Readiness Levels process, but adding a bit of color to it for things like marketing, IP and usability. We went from really rudimentary wooden and plastic models to a production-ready product.
The device, called Gulp, had a soft launch in late 2021, with a full launch expected later this year. Connected between the outlet pipe and the drain, this retrofit washing machine filter captures microplastics as they leave the machine in the waste water.
A tiny piece of red, wavy microplastic seen against the white surface of the washing machine looks small and inconsequential. But these fibers accumulate quickly and Root estimates that 240g of microplastic is captured each year in just one of the filters in his home washing machine. Multiply that amount by every washing machine in a UK home and it quickly becomes apparent that tons and tons of microplastics are entering our waterways. “While not all of these fibers are plastic, with 65% of all clothing today made from synthetic materials, many of them are,” Root says.
Gulp’s key innovation, and one that posed the biggest technical challenge during the design process, is that the device has no spare parts or disposable filters. Instead, the filter is emptied once a month and then reused. “Most filtration technologies, including the medical masks we wear during Covid, work by capturing the material and incorporating it into the filter, which is then effectively removed,” Root says.
“Microplastics are a pretty simple thing to capture, what’s hard to manage is everything else. All sorts of things make their way through the sewage network, from skin cells and silica to disposable diapers. What we’ve been working on for a number of years is the technology to do it efficiently and to make it scalable.
One of the founding principles of the company being to support a circular economy, the ambition is not only to be a pioneer in technological solutions for capturing microplastics but also to collect and recycle them. Currently, Gulp customers are encouraged to send their captured microplastics to Matter, which is researching ways to reintroduce this material into the manufacturing process where it can be used to make new products. “It will be a complete closed loop, cradle to cradle. That’s the mission and we’re working to achieve it,” says Root.
While the ambition is admirable, being a sustainable business is a challenge, but it’s a challenge Matter is determined to meet. Indeed, one of Matter’s first employees was responsible for sustainable development to ensure that the company’s impact on the environment remained minimal. “Sustainability is part of our company’s mission and DNA,” Root insists.
“We look at five key criteria in terms of how our business operates. The first is material health and being very picky about the types of sustainable materials we select. The second is material reuse, which relates to the degree of upcycling and recycling of the materials we use. The third is power consumption.
“The fourth is water management and ensuring that we don’t produce microplastics in our test facility. Indeed, we have designed our own catchment system to harvest the water. The final criterion is the social equity and setting standards for the types of businesses we work with.”
Having successfully secured investment from Builders Vision’s Rising Tide Fund and the British Design Fund, Matter is looking to expand its business in three areas: R&D, education and legislation. Currently in the process of selecting a supply chain to scale up manufacturing of its Gulp product, Matter is working with white goods manufacturers to incorporate its technology into new products in the coming years. It also develops filtration systems to be integrated into washing machines. One of the main areas where he is campaigning for change is for the UK to follow France’s lead by making it illegal to buy a washing machine without a microplastic filter from 2025.
But the source of the problem lies higher up in the design and manufacture of textiles, which must change to prevent microplastics from ending up in our washing machines. In the meantime, Root says we all need to do what we can to prevent climate change. As he says, “we can’t choose not to. We will burn banknotes to stay warm if climate change happens as scientists predict, because the financial system will mean nothing.
He believes engineers have a key role to play in creating solutions to tackle climate change. “Engineers are often the decision makers in a design process and have such a responsibility to define the intent of a product,” he says. “Basically, it’s about cradle to cradle and designing a circular system. If we achieve this, not only are we protecting Earth, but it allows us to look beyond Earth and become a space nation.
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