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Water Today Title April 14, 2024

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Lab Bench Technology meets Community Spirit: Household Action on Microfiber

WT staff

WT Interview with Lisa Erdle, University of Toronto and Brooke Harrison, Georgian Bay Forever

WT: Thank you both for being here. Brooke, we will start with you. I don’t usually think of microplastics or microfibers on my way to work, but people should start doing that. Can you tell me a little bit about your community and how you came upon doing this project?

Brooke Harrison: Yes, this is a really exciting project, a partnership between Georgian Bay Forever and University of Toronto. It's just coming up on two, three years now. We had filters installed in the community of Parry Sound, about four hours north of Toronto. It was to understand microfibers shed from laundering our clothing in laundry machines. We tested these filters in the lab, we found the filters 89% effective in the lab, that’s why we wanted to bring it to a community setting. We installed in 97 homes in Parry Sound to better understand the impact of microfibers shed from our clothing.

WT: Lisa, could you explain to the viewers, what is a microfiber, why should people be caring about microfibers and what part of this did you and University of Toronto handle?

Lisa Erdle: Yes, thanks, a microfiber is any fiber less than 5 mm in size, so, very small particles. We see these in all types of environments around the world. They contaminate many different types of habitats and wildlife, they are in sand, in water, in our beer, in your drinking water. They are one of the most common types of microplastic. Some people are familiar with microplastics because there are many different types. We started caring about them because they are the most common particle type, we see in the Great Lakes, in surface water and in fish. In my research at University of Toronto, I was looking at what kind of particles contaminate fish. I was looking at different species of fish in the Great Lakes, including lake trout and rainbow smelt. In every single one of our fish, we found fibers, sometimes at high concentrations, up to 100 fibers per fish. There are mitigation solutions needed to prevent these types of emissions. One known source of these fibers is in washing our clothing. A single load of laundry can release anywhere from tens to hundreds of thousands of these small fibers, and then they get released into the environment.

WT; There are a hundred thousand pieces of microplastic in one load of laundry?

Erdle: Not just plastic, natural fibers shed too. Right now, I am wearing a cotton shirt. When I wash this along with my polyester fleece, both will shed these fibers. Probably a lot of people would be familiar with seeing these fibers collected in the dryer, they are shedding when we wash our clothing too, we just don’t see it in our washing machines.

WT: So, three years ago, Brooke, everyone decides, okay we are going to measure microplastics, you found millions of these things everywhere. Your project in Parry Sound, putting filters on washing machines. Can you tell me how this goes, you knock on doors and ask people to use the microfiber filter? How does this work on the ground?

Harrison: It starts with education. I think a lot of us don’t realize a lot of our clothing is made of plastics. It starts with a really great conversation, “did you know this? Let's learn together". I think a lot of people are quite alarmed by the quantity of microfibers in the lakes. We know a source of this is from laundering our clothing. Parry Sound was selected, we tested at the wastewater plant before we installed filters and again after we installed filters. We are hoping to see a reduction with 100 people, which is a large enough amount in a small community to see the reduction at the wastewater plant. It was challenging to get 97 households to participate. The big thing is that space is an issue, these filter systems just don’t work in a lot of houses, if the laundry machine is smaller, or tucked into a closet, or has a shelf above it. The space issue is a big part of the reason why we weren’t able to install in everyone’s homes. Also, some people physically aren’t capable of removing the lid to clean it once a month. We went to the newspapers, we went to the radios, we did go door to door, we went to farmers’ markets, we tried to recruit a hundred households to install these filters. We asked all households to collect the fibers as they were cleaning out their filter, and store in the freezer so we could actually go around and pick it up every five months and weigh it, and really analyze what we are collecting, and how much we were able to see. The households that were involved were really engaged, excited to be part of this research component with the University of Toronto.

Erdle: These volunteers are really the heroes. We knew these filters were effective in the lab, but we had not looked at them in peoples’ homes. The people really stepped up, decided to participate, and help by saving the lint in the freezers so I could take it back to the lab and count fibers. I am so grateful to the wonderful people in Parry Sound that made this research possible. Now there are communities all around the world looking to Parry Sound, already legislators in France, the UK and California know about Parry Sound for this monumental effort installing filters in homes.

WT: Lisa, when Brooke said “selected”, I assumed U of T selected Parry Sound, is that accurate?

Erdle: It’s a collaboration. We wanted to do a town that was large enough to have a wastewater treatment plant but still small enough where we could install a manageable number of filters, and potentially see an effect. It would have been great to do in a big city like Toronto, but with millions of people connected to the wastewater plant this was too much. In Parry Sound there are about 1000 households, we put filters in about 100, so we had about ten percent of households with the filter. Parry Sound is the Goldilocks town, not too big, not too small, perfect to do this type of study.

WT: What did this cost? What are the economics of this project? There are a lot of things in water, from lead to endocrine disruptors. What was the cost of your trial, do you think this is more important, or is it just included with everything else that is in water? Are you hoping for a world-changing event here?

Erdle: I think it’s all connected. Microplastics are proven endocrine disrupters, so we know these particles are having an effect when they get into the lake, get into fish. It’s not saying one issue is bigger than another, we need to pull all these different levers at the same time. These filters are not cheap, they are about $150, you have to hire a professional plumber to install them. There are currently laws on the table in Canada that could potentially require new washing machines to have these filters built-in. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect everyone to buy the filter, instead, it could be installed in the new machines.

WT: Who covered the cost of the test? Did any of the folks in Parry Sound have to pay $150 per filter, or did Brooke raise some money and buy them?

Erdle: Georgian Bay Forever fund-raised, so it was no cost to the participants, it was all covered.

WT: When I go to the store and buy my Whirlpool or Maytag machine, you are hoping they will have these filters built-n? Any thoughts on why they haven’t bothered to do this so far?

Erdle: If I had a magic wand, I would just have filters installed in all washing machines. I think it hasn’t been done because we just didn’t know it was a problem, there has not been a demand for it. We have only known about microfibers in the environment for about a decade. As the research has progressed, we found these particles in the environment, we know there are solutions needed, now our study shows this is a solution that works. There is precedent, some countries have filters built-in. Japan, for instance, has this type of filter, the goal is to remove lint, mainly for aesthetics, but it also has an environmental impact. It’s really new but I hope industry will respond, so when you go to buy a washing machine, you have the option to buy one with a filter or maybe it's mandated by government that all machines have them.

WT: Brooke, when you went to peoples’ doors, you said they were alarmed at this microplastic thing. Do you think those who were involved in the test are telling two more people who are telling two more people? Is this knowledge growing exponentially, or is the test over and done?

Harrison: Education goes a long way; I think people are excited. We didn’t really know the extent of fibers in the laundry machines and now we do. Now we also know the solution, collecting it at the source. I think we are all trying to make the shift, like using reusable water bottles instead of plastics, we make conscious efforts to improve our actions. Once we know the damage of microplastics, and the larger scale of fast fashion, maybe it's all in my head, but I’m hoping we are all trying to move to this different future where we aren’t so reliant on plastics. That’s the large picture but I think for those that could not install the filter, they encouraged a neighbour with a larger laundry room.

WT: Brooke, you give me hope for the future, and that’s hard to do for an environmental reporter these days. Given that I decide to install this filter, I don’t want to pollute my planet, now I have a big pile of this lint, where does this stuff go once my filter is full?

Harrison: It’s a great question, one that I think about a lot as well. You are right, with the lint collected in the washer, just like dryer lint goes into the garbage goes into the landfill. It's contained, at least somewhat, but we know landfills aren’t perfect. Rachel Miller’s vision for the future is if we could capture the lint, recover it and turn it into something else. It’s complicated because we have a mixed load of different materials. I have cotton now, but I might wash it with wool or polyester in a single load, so it’s hard to recover different types of mixed fibers. If loads were separated, if it was collected separately, then it is possible, if people are widespread implementing this filter in washers and dryers too.

WT: Let’s look at that. If I call a municipality to talk to the wastewater folks. It’s clear that one washing machine generates x grams of this stuff, aren’t the wastewater systems capable of taking this out at the treatment plant?

Erdle: It’s a great idea, but our wastewater treatment plants were mostly designed about a century ago, designed to take out harmful bacteria, they are not great at removing these persistent organic contaminants, there a whole range of these chemicals and microplastics, when these plants were built they weren’t designed to remove these things. The microfibers are captured in the sludge and that is reapplied to the environment as a fertilizer. In my mind, it makes more sense to collect them at the source. Not all communities have wastewater plants, a lot of people are on septic systems, it's another pathway for these fibers to get into the environment as the waste is not treated. The kind of filtration that would be needed to remove fibers, membrane filtration is very costly.99% of fibers are captured in the solids, and then often applied on land.

WT: So, we need to be saying to federal government give us all a tax credit for a filter or do I go to ON government, the wastewater guys can’t do anything about this because we just refuse to have wastewater systems that are the 21st century. Do we get everyone a filter for Christmas from government?

Erdle:I am a biologist, not a policy analyst. Maybe a tax credit to retrofit washing machines, but I think built-in is best, rather than buying external filters. Retrofitting may be important for people that have a perfectly functioning machine. It would not be environmental to replace a piece of equipment just for the filter.

WT: How does this project is completed, will people leave the filters installed on their machines, will you check up on them? How does closure work?

Harrison: Everyone in Parry Sound that has this installed gets to keep their filter, so that’s great for the households that already have it. As far as giving a filter for Christmas, a lot of locations simply can’t fit these filters in, a lot of laundry rooms just don’t allow the space to install this. It’s best to have the filter be part of the laundry machine. I don’t know if we mentioned this, ON Bill 279, it’s past first reading, we are trying to get eyes on it, trying to get support for it. This bill is saying all new laundry machines must be built with this filter.

WT: I want to applaud you, as people doing real things for the environment, not just green-wash speaking at a party. The EU, specifically a company in Slovakia has a closed loop system, you take the screen out with the microfiber, then send it back, they recycle the fibers at their own warehouse. Is that a workable model in Canada?

Erdle: Yes, I think it could be, obviously the Canadian context is different from Europe as to scale and population density. It's an interesting model, interesting concept. It needs to be bigger to work for Canadians at scale but could be a possibility.

WT: Every Canadian should send you a Christmas card and say thanks for what you are doing. Everyone involved should be proud, thanks for what you do.


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