Public awareness is finally awakening to the ocean plastic pollution crisis, and consumers are also becoming more aware of their power to push for solutions. That can motivate investors to apply their resources to new, more sustainable fields. One of those fields is cell-free biomanufacturing, and it could lead to new fabrics that help reduce plastic microparticles in the ocean and elsewhere.
Waste-strewn beaches and sea creatures entangled in plastic debris are the most visible forms of ocean plastic pollution, but waste mismanagement is only part of the crisis. The other part consists of microscopic particles of plastic that collect in ocean habitats and concentrate in food chains.
Some types of ocean microplastic form when larger plastic items disintegrate in water. At least in theory, that problem could be resolved by improving and enforcing waste management and recycling systems.
Cutting down on plastic packaging, reducing the amount of single-use plastics in circulation, and introducing more biodegradable materials into the market can also help resolve the waste management part of the microplastic problem.
Unfortunately, solutions to the other part of the ocean microplastic problem are much thornier. Millions of people all over the world make a significant contribution to the microparticle problem, simply by doing their weekly laundry. Microparticles of synthetic fiber get knocked loose during the wash cycle. They flow down the drain with rinse water, and then become part of this ongoing ocean plastic problem.
Wastewater treatment plants can collect some of the fibers, but many are too small to be caught. They enter drains that lead to the oceans, either directly or through rivers, and they become part of the global ocean plastic crisis.
The connection between the washing of synthetic clothing and the pollution of the marine environment has been confirmed by researchers since at least 2011, when the American Chemical Society published a widely cited study of microplastic accumulation on shorelines. More recently, the journal Nature published a study that exposed the role of everyday habits in the problem, by measuring the amount of microfibers released by ordinary household washing machines.
“Results showed that microfibers released during washing range from 124 to 308 [milligrams per kilogram] of washed fabric depending from the type of washed garment that corresponds to a number of microfibers ranging from 640,000 to 1,500,000,” the study’s authors reported. They also noted that many of the released microfibers were small enough to escape from wastewater treatment plants.
The washing machine study also took note of extensive literature on the subject.
“A recent review related to microfibers detection in real samples highlighted how microfibers can be found in beaches worldwide, in the water of the Pacific Ocean, the North Sea, the Atlantic Ocean and even in the Artic and in deep sea sediments,” the authors observed. “Textile fibers were also found in fish and shellfish on sale for human consumption, sampled from markets in Makassar, Indonesia, and from California, USA.”
The laundry problem may seem intractable, but solutions are on the horizon.
Upgrading municipal wastewater treatment systems is one effective way to reduce microfiber pollution. However, such work is time consuming and expensive. Though it can make a significant difference for older treatment plants that are overdue for an upgrade, it may not completely eliminate microfiber discharges.
Another avenue is the emergence of “waterless” laundry machines that deploy polymer beads to remove dirt and stains. The technology only requires a cup-sized amount of water and a small amount of detergent. Because so little water is involved, the technology makes it possible to capture microparticles at the source, before they wash down the drain. Those same particles could then be caught in a microfilter and disposed with the regular household solid waste.
The startup Xeros has been working on waterless laundry technology for several years, and the company recently introduced a microfiber trap for commercial laundries. Unfortunately, a similar solution for household laundry machines may be years away.
Another pathway would be to reduce the use of petrochemical fibers in clothing and household goods, and to rely more on natural fibers that can biodegrade safely. That solution is already at hand, but a rapid transition to all-natural fibers will raise new conflicts in the already stressed area of land, water, and energy in agriculture.
Encouraging or requiring the reuse and recycling of natural fabrics would help alleviate some of the stress on agriculture. An additional pathway would be to use new cell-free biomanufacturing methods to “grow” bio-based building blocks for synthetic fibers that can degrade harmlessly in water.
Cell-free systems are not a new phenomenon. They emerged in the 1950s as a powerful research tool for conducting precise, efficient investigations without the distraction of cultivating entire cells.
A decade later, cell-free systems enabled researchers to decipher the genetic code in the 1960s. They are still best known for their application in medical and biological fields, and they have also been applied to energy and agriculture.
As applied to fabrics, such cell-free systems could provide a more sustainable way to replace synthetic fibers with bio-based ones. The challenge is to scale up and reduce costs.
One company that seems to have figured it out is the startup FabricNano.
“We have created a novel DNA-based flow reactor to produce biochemicals by engineering enzymes with the ability to bind directly to DNA,” the company explains. “The use of DNA as a scaffold allows high spatial precision, while the ability of enzymes to attach anywhere along a string of DNA provides deep flexibility.”
Fortune recently profiled the company and described its biomanufacturing process as harnessing “the chemical laboratories that exist inside the cells of living organisms, but it does so without the need to actually use living things.”
The process still requires energy input in the form of natural sugars. However, since there is no need to tailor the input for living cells, FabricNano can deploy impure waste sugars. That provides the company with an additional layer of sustainability.
The Fortune profile specifically mentions waste glycerin from biodiesel production. Although pure glycerin has many commercial uses, biodiesel waste glycerin is impure and unsuitable for most applications. As a result, there has been an ongoing glut of waste glycerin in the global supply chain. The oversupply is all but certain to persist as demand for biodiesel rises.
Waste glycerin provides FabricNano with a practically limitless supply of inexpensive feedstock and a firm foothold in the circular economy, too.
As Fortune notes, FabricNano has some powerful backers supporting it financially, including actress and gender equality activist Emma Watson as well as Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and former Bayer CEO Alexander Moscho.
FabricNano is also a welcome addition to the growing field of nanomaterial manufacturing. In recent years, there has been considerable activity in the areas of specialized fabric coatings and other applications, some of which may involve toxic materials. By relying on a bio-based, biodegradable platform, FabricNano could help steer the entire field in a more sustainable direction – and help tackle the mounting ocean plastic crisis.
Image credit: Cristian Palmer/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.