Climate Crisis

These scientists are using sound waves to filter plastic fibres from washing machine wastewater

Maria-Luiza Pedrotti, CNRS marine biologist specialized in micro-plastics, looks at sea sample taken from the Mediterranean Sea on a coastal research vessel as part of a scientific study about microplastics damaging marine ecosystems, near Villefranche-Sur-Mer, on the French Riviera, France, October 19, 2018.

Every time we wash our clothes, tiny plastic fibres are released into the water. Image: REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Sean Fleming
Senior Writer, Formative Content
Share:
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Climate Crisis?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Climate Crisis is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Climate Crisis

  • Washing machines contribute to marine plastic pollution
  • 60% of material made into clothing is plastic
  • A single load of washing could release hundreds of thousands of microfibres
  • Japanese researchers test acoustic wave device

Every time we wash our clothes, tiny plastic fibres are released into the water. But while these microfibres are small, they’re amounting to a big problem.

Have you read?

Multiply that by the number of washing machines in the world and it’s not hard to see why the simple act of cleaning our clothes is leading to a serious amount of ocean plastic pollution.

Visualisation of how plastic enters the worlds oceans
The plastic pathway from production to our worlds oceans Image: Our World in Data

The sound of progress

Solutions include filtration systems that use mesh to trap microparticles. But currently they can’t capture everything.

So, rather than using ever-finer grades of mesh, scientists at Japan’s Shinshu University have suggested another approach: using what’s known as a bulk acoustic wave system.

Their system applies sound waves to wastewater before it leaves the machine, from either side of a central stream. This creates an acoustic wave in the centre, which traps microplastic fibres and other small particles.

The water containing the fibres is channelled in one direction, leaving the remaining wastewater to be expelled either side and dealt with via the regular pipes and plumbing.

The trapped fibres can then be isolated and extracted from the water via a process of evaporation before being safely disposed of.

A persistent problem

The extent of marine plastic pollution is well documented. The WWF says plastic is “choking our oceans”, and that around 700 marine species are threatened. One in two sea turtles has ingested plastic, it says, while 90% of sea birds have it in their stomachs.

Attempts to remove plastic from the ocean have included sea bins and booms.

Sea bins work better in confined areas with calmer water, such as marinas and bays or yacht clubs. They can capture around 20 kg of waste in a single day.

Larger operations, such as ocean-going booms, have the promise of collecting much larger amounts of waste. But they have a number of challenges to overcome, not least of which has been the problem of waste being washed over the side of the boom to once again pollute the ocean.

Discover

How UpLink is helping to find innovations to solve challenges like this

Positive results

So stopping plastics at their source, including plastic microfibres, will be key to helping clean up the oceans.

And, although not yet commercially available, tests on the Japanese scientists’ bulk acoustic wave system have yielded positive results. The researchers say it needs to be refined before it enters production, but in lab conditions, it captured 95% of PEP-T (polyethylene terephthalate) fibres, and 99% of Nylon 6 fibres.

Particles as small as just five micrometres can be caught, which is approximately the thickness of the silk from a spider’s web.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Climate CrisisGlobal Governance
Share:
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Reducing barriers to maritime fuel projects is key to decarbonizing shipping

Mette Asmussen and Takahiro Furusaki

April 18, 2024

1:45

About Us

Events

Media

Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum