We are drinking our clothes: Waterloo startup develops solution for keeping microfibre pollutants out of our water

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A Waterloo startup has developed a solution for keeping microfibre pollutants out of our water

When tossing in a load of laundry most of us have no idea that other people may unwittingly swallow tiny pieces of our yoga pants or bath towels.

Each of us ingests synthetic microfibres every day in the food we eat and the water we drink. These fibres from our clothing could be poisoning our waterways and food chain on a massive scale. It’s something that’s troubled Lauren Smith ever since she found out and it inspired a business idea to remove the tiny plastic particles from our water.

What are microfibres?

A type of microplastic, microfibres are one-fifth the width of a human hair and act like tiny sponges, absorbing toxins like pesticides and motor oil from surrounding waters. When they make their way to our oceans and small organisms like plankton eat them, these toxins are magnified upwards through the food chain and eventually consumed by people.

The sheer amount of plastics currently polluting waterways across the globe is almost incomprehensible; they don’t biodegrade for hundreds of years and there is currently no way to recover them, which is why stopping them at the source — our washing machines — is key.

Laundry cycle

Right now, our washing machines and water treatment systems are not equipped to catch them. Smith knew she had to do something and given the size and scope of the problem it would test the entrepreneurial limits of her personality.

Enter PolyGone Technologies

Smith co-founded PolyGone Technologies, based in the Velocity Science lab. She and her co-founder have spent thousands of hours testing and perfecting several versions microfibre filters. In doing so, they realized the key to solving this problem is to first develop accurate testing for microfibre detection.

“There’s no standardized detection methods currently, as the problem is so new,” Smith says, “We borrowed and played around with pieces from current literature, and created a new, reliable method capable of detecting these tiny fibres in any liquid — from the washing machine, to tap water, to beer.”

The path to success hasn’t been without challenges

After receiving initial mentorship from Waterloo’s Water Institute and building up the courage and skills to pitch for the first time at the de Gaspé Beaubien’s 2017 AquaHacking challenge, public-speaking-averse Smith won her first startup funds.

The celebration was sweet but short-lived. Smith soon lost the rest of her team when the other members opted to focus on academics and other career pursuits. Opportunely, her partner in business and life, University of Waterloo environmental engineer Nicole Balliston, stepped in and joined Smith. Together they are learning how to thrive in the fast-paced entrepreneurial landscape as they work to see PolyGone rise to its full potential to meet a growing need.

“Growing up, I was not risk taker,” says Smith at a lab bench beside her mini test washing machine and microscope. “I never thought learning to embrace setbacks or failure would become part of my everyday experience and that I would learn to view it as an opportunity to grow and find greater success.”

Having won over $85,000 at pitch competitions in the past 12-months of their start-up journey alone, Smith and Balliston are now working to put the power back into the hands of citizens, developing a testing method simple enough to use at home and accurate enough for quality analysis labs in food and beverage industries. They have tested filters on the market intended to capture microfibres, with mixed results. “We want to be able to recommend the best products, backed by science, to those who want to make a difference.”

Focused on a solution

Smith is positioning her company as the gold standard for microfibre detection and preparing a certification scheme for “microfibre-free” products. PolyGone will certify products from drinking water, existing washing machine filters, beer, and even grade the degree of shedding on different apparel items.

“A lot of people still don’t even know what microfibres are. But they want to do something about it when they find out,” she says. “Our methods will make sure they get products that actually work and that industries know how to reduce their contribution to the problem.”

As women and members of the LGBTQ community, Smith and Balliston are fast-becoming inspirational mentors in the male-dominated entrepreneurial scene.

“I really encourage other women to get involved in entrepreneurship and to not be scared to get their feet wet in tech or science of any kind,” says Smith. “You can’t win every pitch competition, not every meeting will go well and you won't get along with everybody. You have to be determined to keep going.”

Lauren Smith

Part of that determination comes from the understanding that a constellation of actors are contributing to a serious health-problem. The fashion industry, consumers, governments, water treatment plants and washing machine manufacturers are all responsible. PolyGone instead focuses on being the solution that empowers as many people as possible to be informed about what they are consuming and to do something practical about the problem.

Steps you can take

Infographic on limiting plastics in water

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