Divert and Capture: Microfiber Project

Project Background

Microfibers are anthropogenic fibers (< 5mm in length), many of which are microplastics. Widespread contamination around the world makes microfibers one of the most prevalent types of microplastics in surface water, soil, biota and atmospheric samples. Microfibers enter the environment from several sources, and one known route is through washing our clothing.

Studies show that a single load of laundry can release thousands of microfibers into washing machine effluent, and when washing effluent is carried to a wastewater treatment plant, some microfibers are released directly into aquatic ecosystems.

PhD student Lisa Erdle is investigating microfiber contamination in wild-caught fish from the Great Lakes and is studying the effects of microfibers when ingested by wildlife. She is also leading this pilot project.

Project Overview

This project is a next step to an earlier study quantifying the effectiveness of existing technologies to reduce microfibers being emitted from washing machines. We investigated the effectiveness of two technologies marketed to reduce microfiber emissions. Our published study demonstrates that after-market filters on washing machines significantly reduce microfibers in washing machine effluent. This shows that filters added to washing machines can capture and divert microfiber, keeping them out of our lakes.

Now, we’re working with Georgian Bay Forever, a local environmental charity, on a pilot project to see whether we can scale up our initial results in the lab to a small town. In 2019, we began a two-year study installing washing machine filters in over 100 households in Parry Sound, Ontario.

In quantifying microfibers captured at a community-scale, we hope to:

  1. Demonstrate that filters are effective at capturing microfibers in people’s homes.
  2. Advance effective solutions to keep microfibers from entering Lake Huron.

Project Results

Filters on washing machines prevent millions of microfibers from entering aquatic ecosystems. A pilot run at the scale of a small town revealed a significant decrease in microfibers at the wastewater treatment plant scale.

Boxplot showing microfiber count for each sample period before the filter installation (March 2019 and July 2019) and after filter installation (August 2019 and March 2020).

Download the full paper.

This project is in collaboration with Georgian Bay Forever and Ocean Conservancy.