Changemaker Challenge finalist – Laure Herweyers
20 million plastic particles end up in our environment every time you use your washing machine. That doesn’t really feel clean, does it? Should you stop washing your clothes? Buy a completely new, organic wardrobe? There is another option. Laure Herweyers is working on a filter to prevent the microplastic from washing down the drain. And this won her the second prize in the Changemaker Challenge 2018.
If the synthetic shirt fits…
Synthetic clothing contains tiny bits of plastic and every time you put your stretchy pants in the washing machine, some of these particles get washed away. ‘I wasn’t even aware of this particular part of the plastic problem,’ says Laure Herweyers, student Product Development at the University of Antwerp. ‘But when I was discussing the Plastic Soup with a professor, we noticed that there isn’t that much research about microplastic fibres. And we decided to focus on that.’
Waiting for the industry is not an option
There are multiple options. Laure explains: ‘The manufacturers of washing machines are probably working on some kind of filter, but it will take many years before every household will get those new washing machines installed. And even then, if it’s a filter somewhere in the washing machine, will people be able and willing to clean it every time you washed your clothes?’ Waiting is not an option, as far as Laure is concerned. ‘Same goes for the water companies. They can’t filter the microplastic fibres out of the ‘waste water’ that passes through the pipes before it ends up in our world’s water sources. And to make the necessary adjustments is expensive, so I’m not expecting this to change anytime soon. So I chose a different direction.’
In your own home
Laure sees that many – especially young – people want to live sustainably. There are a couple of things you can already do yourself. ‘Apart from buying organic clothing, there are two consumer solutions: the Guppyfriend and the Cora Ball. Both were tested to see if these got most microplastics out of the water. But I think the results aren’t good enough.’ The Guppyfriend is a bag which will stop most microplastics from getting into the waste water. But tests show that, when you clean the bag, it is pretty hard to get the microplastics out. Laure: ‘And when you wash your hands afterwards, the plastic fibres still get washed away. ’ And the Cora Ball? ‘It will catch the bigger microplastic fibres, but not the smaller ones. It only catches about 30% of the fibres. So there’s still a very big problem.’
Technology and communication
Laure was a bit sceptical about her plans to create a filter for consumers. ‘But I got a lot of support from the university and other students. Many people believe that we can actually make a difference with our solution. And this solution will have an immediate effect. We won’t have to wait for the industry to catch up.’ Laure can’t tell us what her invention will look like yet, because she applied for patent recently, but she can tell us what the basics are. ‘We came up with a filter you can add onto the pipes. This means it is easy accessible, it’s not too big, easy to install – it fits every washing machine – and it’s easy to clean.’ Sounds great. We can’t wait to see the result. ‘But that’s not all. A filter is just a part of the solution. People also need to know about the problem and be aware of what’s causing it. So I want to combine a technical solution with communication strategies to reach people and get them aboard. Maybe they will buy my filter, or invest in a more sustainable wardrobe. The goal is to inspire them.’
Laure decided to go for it. She and her professor were discussing how to get more funding, when a PhD Student emailed her about the Changemaker Challenge. She entered immediately. ‘Why not? It felt like a logical step to get some extra funding. But I didn’t know it would be such a special experience. It exceeded all of my expectations. Not just because I was one of the winners, but also because it was amazing to connect with all these people who share your passion.’
So you won the challenge and got some additional money to back your research. What will you do next? Laure: ‘We will run a lot of tests to see what works and hopefully get a working model out there by the end of the year. It’s been a super interesting year and it has really defined my career path. I now know where my passion lies and that I really want to continue working on this topic. Hopefully I can contribute to solving the plastic problem.’ We’re sure you will. And we’re not the only ones. Besides the Changemaker Challenge, Laure has also won the OVAM ecodesign award in Belgium. High-five Laure!