Small fibers, big soiling

How microplastics harm our environment and what people and companies can do about it.

A bite on a lollipop stick - not particularly tasty. Chewing on plastic cutlery? Not very appetizing either. This is not the only reason why single-use plastic products are increasingly being banned in connection with our food. And yet we still eat plastic regularly and will continue to do so.

According to a study by the WWF and the University of Newcastle, Australia, we consume around 2000 plastic particles a week through our food1. We don't notice them because they are microscopic plastic particles, between 5 millimeters and just one micrometer in size. So-called microplastics. And this is a serious problem!

Microplastics damage the body

How exactly microplastics damage the human body and what diseases they cause is currently the subject of intense research. International studies have already found microplastics in the stool, stomach, blood, placenta and lungs of humans. In animals, it has already been proven that plastic particles trigger mechanisms that can lead to cancer. The particles have caused inflammation in the intestines of laboratory animals, presumably by disrupting the microbiota. This disruption can lead to tumors. Studies also point to tissue changes or inflammatory reactions and toxicological effects, including internal injuries and deaths.

For us humans, the risk of health consequences from microplastics is particularly high when chronic illnesses are present. While a healthy gut may be able to ward off the effects of ingested plastic particles, this works less well with already impaired defense mechanisms.

But how exactly do microplastics first get into the environment and then into the bodies of humans and animals?

One direct form of plastic intake is the consumption of mineral water. According to a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, people who drink the recommended 1.5 to two liters of water from plastic bottles every day consume around 90,000 plastic particles per year. With tap water from glass containers, the figure is only around 40,0002.

Microplastics are also regularly found in foods such as fish, shellfish and mussels. The risk of ingestion by humans is particularly high in mussels, as they are eaten whole. In fish, the particles are mainly found in stomach and intestinal contents, which humans do not normally eat. However, microplastics have even been detected in foods such as salt and beer.

"Microplastics are the invisible curse of the oceans, so to speak."

Robert Habeck

German Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy

Our clothing is the biggest emitter of microplastics

At 28 percent, the second largest proportion of microplastics in the world's oceans comes from the abrasion of car tires. "For every 50,000 kilometers driven by a car, six kilograms of plastic particles are deposited by the tires," Lukas Kenner, cancer researcher and pathologist at MedUni Vienna and scientific director of the microONE project, told Deutsche Welle. The Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology (UMSICHT) has calculated 1.2 kilograms of microplastic emissions per person per year due to tire abrasion. But whatever figure you use, the amount is extremely high.

However, the largest emitter of microplastics is clothing made from synthetic fibers, such as sportswear or fleece fabric. According to a study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 35 percent of microplastics in the sea come from fiber abrasion from textile washing. In Germany alone, it was calculated that between 30 million and three billion synthetic fibers are released each year.

In relation to individual consumers, it is estimated that up to 3,000 fibers or 1.2 million particles can be released per wash cycle, depending on the type of textile. In wastewater treatment plants, 99 percent of the small particles are removed from our wastewater by special cyclone filters and centrifugal force. For this reason, our treated wastewater is largely free of them. However, the sewage sludge is heavily contaminated with it, and so microplastics can end up in the fertilizer on our fields, get into our soil and ultimately be washed into the oceans via rivers. The fact that coastal waters are more polluted than the open sea indicates that synthetic fibers are predominantly land-based in origin.

Microplastic filters are an important solution for environmental protection

There is an obvious solution to reducing microplastics from synthetic clothing via the laundry: filters.

The European Union is currently considering standardized regulations for microplastic filters in newly sold washing machines. In Germany, the Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland (BUND) is also calling for this. Naturschutzbund Deutschland e. V. (NABU) even says that washing machine filters should be standard and that research into less abrasive synthetic textile fibers should be stepped up.

Hengst Filtration also wants to make its contribution to a clean environment

At Hengst Filtration, we also want to make our contribution to a clean environment. As a filter specialist, we have decades of experience in purifying liquids and air. It was therefore only natural that we should also put our motto #purifyingourplanet into practice in the household sector and have therefore been developing solutions for microplastic filtration for washing machines for some time.

"If we can use our decades of filtration expertise to ensure virtually microplastic-free wastewater and therefore a clean environment, that is a huge incentive for us."

Markus Lüersmann

Markus Lüersmann

Head of Engineering

Together with universities and manufacturers of household appliances, Hengst is currently conducting intensive research into solutions that effectively filter microplastics out of washing water while being as affordable as possible for consumers. There are many different approaches to these challenges, which ultimately benefit the environment.

First product developments

At IFA 2023 in Berlin, together with our development partner Miele, we will be showcasing the first microplastic filter from the leading specialist for household appliances. The stand-alone solution for washing machines impresses with its very high filtration efficiency of harmful microplastics and will be commercially available at the end of 2024.

We are currently working intensively on further efficient and easy-to-maintain solutions for filtering microplastics out of the wastewater from washing processes.

We humans can also actively avoid microplastics

But it's not just industry and politics that need to take action - every single person can also do something to reduce the amount of microplastics in the environment. When it comes to textiles, you can pay attention to which fibers the clothing is made of and also ask yourself for which purposes synthetic fibers are necessary at all. Natural fibers such as cotton, silk or linen are better for the environment.

Natural fibersSemi-synthetic fibersSynthetic fibers

With synthetic fibers in particular, consumers should make sure that they generally wash less and at lower temperatures. Defective clothes can also be repaired by tailors instead of throwing them away or buying new ones.

Everyone can also make a contribution to the second largest emitter of microplastics, car tires. The lower the speed at which we travel and turn corners, the less tire abrasion is produced. So if you drive more slowly, you directly reduce the amount of microplastics on the road.

So there are many ways to reduce the impact of microplastics on our environment. The key is certainly a combination of our own (consumer) behavior and technological innovations. And this is exactly what Hengst Filtration will be making an important contribution to in the coming years.

Source reference

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