In a number of our recent blogs, we have looked at some of the different innovations that are tackling the huge problem of plastic pollution. As a result of increased awareness of this problem, many of us are making changes to our lifestyle, for example, to reduce our reliance on single use plastic items such as straws, bags and bottles. But there is one particular form of plastic pollution that seems to have attracted relatively little attention so far – microfibres.
The microfibre problem
The use of synthetic fabrics has revolutionised the clothing industry since the invention of nylon in the 1930s and these fabrics are often favoured for sports and outdoor clothing. However, during washing of synthetic clothing in a domestic washing machine, thousands of microfibres are shed from the fabric into the water. Existing washing machine filters are unable to trap the tiny microfibres, so they are sent down the drain with the waste water. Ultimately, a large proportion of these discarded microfibres end up in the ocean and from the ocean, they are now finding their way into our food and drink.
Assuming that an all-out ban on polyester is unlikely, what else can be done to address the microfibre problem?
One possibility would be for us to revert to natural fibres; however, the growth of crops such as cotton brings its own environmental issues and can only provide part of the solution. It may be possible over time to develop new synthetic materials that do not shed microfibres to the same extent during washing. For example, one company, HeiQ, have developed a method for treating synthetic fabrics with an adhesive so that they have an increased resistance to abrasion and therefore shed fewer microfibres (see WO 2019/079849). But will the consumer be willing to pay the inevitably higher price for these alternative fabrics?
Assuming synthetic fabrics are here to stay, the most realistic way to tackle the problem would seem to be to find ways to effectively filter out the microfibres before they go down the drain, and then find an alternative way to dispose of them. There is a slowly increasing pressure for washing machine manufacturers to fit all new washing machines with a microfibre filter but at present, there seems to be no legal requirement that they do so and as a result, the majority do not.
For now, it therefore falls to the environmentally conscious consumer to find ways to reduce their own microfibre pollution and several innovative products have been developed for this purpose. Earlier this summer, a company called Xeros announced the publication of their patent application relating to a centrifugal microfibre filter unit which can be retrofitted on an existing washing machine (see WO 2019/122862). Filters of this type are potentially highly effective; however, the cost and effort of installation are likely to be relatively high for the consumer.
A simpler and cheaper innovation, which is already commercially available, is the distinctive looking “Cora Ball”, which is a microfibre catching laundry ball with a unique coral like structure that is placed in the washing machine drum and can trap up to about 25% of the microfibres released during the wash cycle. Patent protection has been sought to protect the unique arrangement of arms forming the ball (see WO 2017/173215):
Another is the GuppyfriendTM washing bag, which is used to hold clothing during the washing cycle and to prevent the microfibres that are shed from the clothing from entering the waste water. The GuppyfriendTM is a simple zipped bag formed from a thermoset plastic fabric having a mesh width that is sufficiently small to trap the plastic microfibres. Again, patent protection has been sought to protect the invention (see US 2018/0320306).
The idea that our plastic waste is now finding its way into our food is unpalatable to say the least. As we have found, the technology to reduce the flow of microfibres out of our washing machines does exist and will no doubt continue to be developed and improved. But as with everything, however ground-breaking the technology, it will only be effective insofar as it is being utilised – and therein lies a different challenge.
What these innovative products do demonstrate is that even in our increasingly high tech world, relatively simple ‘mechanical’ inventions can still provide us with solutions to modern day problems such as plastic pollution. At Reddie & Grose, we have a wealth of experience in drafting and prosecuting patents for mechanical inventions across a wide range of sectors. If you would like some advice on protecting your own invention, please get in touch.
This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.