Rachael Miller, who studied marine archaeology and has devoted herself to keeping plastics from reaching the ocean, believes her invention, called the Cora Ball, could reduce a significant amount of microfibre pollution. Miller claims if just 10 percent of American households used Cora Ball it would keep the equivalent of 30 million water bottles from washing into public waterways a year.
Four inches (ten centimeters) in diameter and made from recycled and recyclable plastic, the Cora Ball imitates the structure of coral in the ocean. While it doesn't catch everything, the company says it captures between a quarter and a third of microfibres in every wash. Customers on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter have pre-ordered 15,500 of Miller’s Cora Balls, which capture tiny bits of synthetic microfibres that come off our clothes in the wash. Up to 700,000 microfibres can shed from a typical thirteen pounds (six kilograms) household load, says Imogen Napper, a postdoctoral marine science researcher at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom. Many of these fibres, which can be as small as three microns, a thirteenth the width of a human hair, are too small for water treatment plants to remove. Despite being so small, organic pollutants in the oceans, like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane (DDT), can stick to them, creating an amalgam.
There can be as many as 100,000 microplastics in a cubic metre of ocean, researchers say, which are then eaten by marine creatures. Ghent University's Lisbeth Van Cauwenberghe says we could be ingesting eleven thousand pieces of plastic a year just through eating shellfish. More than two thirds of fish species in California markets have microfibres in them, says Chelsea Rochman, an aquatic ecology professor at the University of Toronto.
In Denmark, 60 percent of all sewage sludge is "getting used in agriculture," says Lars Monster from the KD Group, a wastewater tech company in the southern Danish town of Vejle. These solid remnants from waste water treatment are distributed on farmland as fertiliser, but microplastics in the sludge then enter the food chain.
Most wastewater treatment plants don't aim to remove microfibres, largely because regulations don't require them to. Mr. Monster's company has developed a new filtration technology that can remove 90 percent of microplastics, he claims, and hopes to get the figure up to 96 percent. The ultimate aim is to recycle all the removed plastics, says Mr. Monster, to "get to the point where microplastics are a resource".