WWF's Conservation Innovation Awards

Gathering votes
Gathering votes

The Baleen Filter – Preventing Plastic Microfibres from entering our oceans



Microfibres are a major concern for New Zealand’s marine life and all of the world’s oceans. Microfibres are particles of plastic smaller than 5mm that are shed from our clothes when we wash them. The problem is washing machines and our wastewater treatment plants are only catching 60-90% of the fibres, meaning the particles that are not filtered end up in our rivers, lakes and eventually the ocean.

How big is the problem exactly? Reseach found a single piece of synthetic clothing can release up to 250,000 microfibres everytime it is washed. Washing 100,000 polar fleece jackets is equivlent to 11,900 plastic grocery bags ending up in our envionment.

A prototype micron filter has been designed and tested to attach to the outlet of a washing machine discharge. We are confident that the filter is capturing the majority of the fibres. The original goal was to design the filter so it could be mounted to a wall or insereted into the wall cavity of new builds. Due to peoples comments made on not wanting to clean the filter bag. We have decided to go back to the drawing baord to design a self cleaning filter that can be retro fitted to washing machines.

We still plan on launching an app for users of the filters to show the proportion of fibres they have prevented from entering waterways by using the filter. The app will also work as an educational platform to inform its users on the impacts of different textiles. 

Here’s a short animated story on the issue: http://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-microfibers/ 

What conservation problem are you trying to solve?

Plastic microfibres are known to absorb toxins as they pass through wastewater treatment plants. These toxins consist of heavy metals, pesticides, pathogens and viruses. A major concern is that marine animals are consuming these tiny fibres and the fibres and attached toxins are making their way back into our food cycle.  

New Zealand’s marine environment is important to us for both recreational and commercial purposes. It is where we gather sea food, where our children explore rock pools and most importantly, the ocean provides us with 70% of our oxygen. If we are to protect the marine life within our oceans we need to prevent plastics from entering them.

Here's a short video demonstrating where micro fibres are ending up and how their impacting sea life at the bottom of the food chain such as plankon and shellf fish. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=276&v=nb7tbfjYu3o


How are you going to solve this conservation problem?

Due to this competition my ideas have now changed and I feel a self-cleaning filter would be better suited. The best solution would be to have two filters. One that can be retrofitted to existing washing machines. The other could be built into new machines. Obviously the second would require the washing machine manufactures to come on-board.

Education is going to play a big part in informing people about the effects synthetic textiles are having on our sea life. There’s two ways we plan to approach this. Firstly through the app informing users on what materials to look for and what to avoid when purchasing new clothes. Secondly, we aim to go into schools and present on the issue of microfibers. This can be expanded on. Answering questions such as, where does clothing come from, and what are the ethical/environmental issues surrounding it.

What makes your idea new and unique?

Nobody has ever designed a filter to go specifically on the outlet of a washing machine to capture microfibres.

Users will also have free access to an app that will calculate the quantity of microfibre particles prevented from entering our waterways through use of the filter. The app will also act as an educational platorm. 

Who will use your idea, and how will they benefit?

Through washing machine owners using the filter they will collectively help prevent microfibres from entering our oceans.  Users as well as the whole of New Zealand society and its marine environment will benefit from the deduction of plastics entering our waterways and food sources.

Schools, scientists and anybody interested can use the data collected from the app for research purposes. 

One comment mentioned that a lot of farmers who used to make a living out of wool have now made the transition to dairy/beef, as it makes more economical sense. Because of this our waterways are suffering. We see the educational side of the filter  possibly collaborating with projects like “The Campaign for Wool” to educate people into making sustainable decisions when purchasing clothes. The long term vision would be to have farmers transition back into producing wool, which we know has less of an impact on our rivers, etc.

What tasks or activities do you need investment for? How would you spend a $25,000 grant?

This money would be used to:

  • Develop a self cleaning automatic filter to capture micro fibres. 
  • Develop software and phone app for IOS and Android platforms. 
  • Begin the commercial production of the Baleen Filter.  

Are you a New Zealand citizen or resident?


I have read and agree to the Crowdicity Terms of Use, the Conservation Innovation Awards 2017 Supplemental Terms and Conditions, and the Crowdicity Privacy Policy


List five other ideas posted in the challenge that excite you. Why?

1. Restoring the oceans abundance using seawater electrolysis 

 Why? This idea excites me as I could see the technology possibly being used on a local project I’m involved with in the Abel Tasman.

 2. Swimming with E-Coli

 Why? With the quality of our waterways rapidly deteriorating, users need easy ways to identify whether or not a river is safe for swimming. I could also see this technology being used in the wastewater industry having spent a number of years working this industry. I wonder if the technology would become cheap enough so that swimmers would be able to take a testing kit down to the river and test it themselves?

 3. Compost and catch, spreading the predator free movement

 Why? Anything that helps keep pest numbers down and bird numbers up has got to be a win for the environment. Would be a plus for keeping pests down in urban environments.

 4. Kiwi Trailblazers

 Why? This sounds like an amazing idea to engage people and educate them about our coastal regions and the life within them. I would love to talk and engage more on this idea as I could see it educating users on plastics and encouraging them to pick up any loose plastic they may see whilst on their journeys.

 5. Thermal imaging to unmask what is in my backyard

 Why? I can see this idea being utilised around New Zealand to aid in reaching the 2050 predator free goal. Fenced Eco Sanctuaries around NZ would be bound to benefit from thermal imaging tech.

How could you improve your idea?

At present the filter has to be manually emptied. After speaking to people from all walks of life the general consensus is the majority of people would forget about emptying the filter or simply wouldn’t bother with one if it didn’t do all of the work for them. Two suggestions have been made to improve the filter.

 1. Look into producing a small self-cleaning filter. Currently in discussions with a designer to work on producing a prototype. 

2. There are two ways I can see filters been installed. Retro fitted to existing washing machines and built into new washing machines. 

 3. A comment was made by Gerald Dickinson in regards to using an electrostatic signal to attract the fibres. This could be a real game changer if there was away to attract plastics. More research is needed however, but defiantly worth looking into.

 Both of these ideas could make the product a lot more user friendly.

edited on Oct 17, 2017 by Jeremy Stead

Megan Somerville Sep 26, 2017

Kia ora. I am interested in your comment " Schools, scientists and anybody interested can use the data collected from the app for research purposes". what kind of research do you think it could be used for? Could students investigate how washing their school uniforms is leading to pollutants in the water, and therefore make sustainable choices re materials used for uniforms?


Jeremy Stead Sep 26, 2017

Hi Megan, Definitely, the data collected could be used to encourage students to explore alternative clothing materials to polyesters, nylons, etc. It could also be used to educate students on the damage synthetic clothing is doing to our oceans. Through education they would hopefully become more conscious of theirs and their parents’ choices therefore becoming guardians of the ocean for life. Hopefully it would encourage schools to explore more sustainable school uniform options too. I’m currently in the process of putting together a presentation on microfibres for year 7 and 8 students after being approached about the filter project by a local school.

An example of where the data could be used is - Assuming shellfish beds/farms in NZ (research recently found 1/3 of shellfish in California to have microfibres in them) are consuming microfibres (no research done as of yet in NZ) the data could be used to see how many filters are in use in a particular area. If they found only a small percentage of the surrounding population were using the filters they could then explore solutions to educate and encourage the rest of the local population to take using the filters or something similar. It could start a ripple effect through communities (ocean water pun not intended!) towards making sustainable choices that benefit everyone as well as the marine environment.


Marj Marks Sep 26, 2017

How is it that an app can measure the microfibre particles caught in the filter please?


Jeremy Stead Sep 26, 2017

Hi Marj, good question. The user will enter how often they do their washing and the percentage of synthetic to natural clothing they have. For example, if the user inputs that they do one wash a week and 50% of their clothing is synthetic material the app would give them a weekly reading. We know this is in no way perfect as its only a rough indication as to the amount of fibres they have prevented from entering our oceans, but see it as a step in the right direction. The first app will be designed to engage people to look at their wardrobes and clothing choices. It’s never going to know exactly how many plastic microfibres have been released into the ocean, simply because there are just too many of them.

If the project works we plan to design a second filter and app. The second filter will have sensors on it to talk to the app. The sensors work on water flow, so every time the washing machine pumps out, the sensor will send a signal to the app automatically giving the user an indication of the amount of fibres they have prevented from entering our oceans. The sensor will also indicate when the filter is full and needs emptying.


Gerald Dickinson Sep 29, 2017

Hi Jeremy, I like the idea. Have you thought about using an electronic sensor to monitor the micro fibre content in the filter. Maybe produce an electrostatic signal that causes the synthetic fibres to be attracted to an area where the quantity could be measured, recorded. This method doesn't require someone estimate what clothing ratio is in wash.


Jeremy Stead Oct 1, 2017

Hey Gerald, that's a brilliant idea. We haven't thought of that, but will look into it. Is it something your familiar with? Id love to talk more about it.


Gerald Dickinson Oct 2, 2017

Hi Jeremy,
Its not my background. Mine is on electronics and software design that uses sensor information and processes it for the outside world to use.
Some background reading in link

check out the section "Electrostatic discharge properties of polyester woven fabrics"



View all replies (2)

Becky Wilson Oct 4, 2017

The idea has been progressed to the next milestone


Fiona Edwards Oct 9, 2017

Kia ora
I love the product and the solution to a conservation problem but I'm unsure whether the app would be popular with most washing machine users? Do you have any user feedback on this?


Jennifer Mcguire Oct 10, 2017

Hey thanks for your comments it got me thinking about my app - we could add a waste challenge to Kiwi Trailblazers. Users could geo-reference where the plastic waste was picked up - take a photo of the clean up process and tag it on social media. It would be great for spreading your message and celebrating the successes of beach cleans. Potentially the data could be used to look at spatial and temporal changes....though my science might be a bit dodgy here!

None the less - love your project. Would be great to collaborate with you in future!


Jeremy Stead Oct 13, 2017

Hey Jennifer, I love the Kiwi Trailblazers app. Anything to get people outdoors. That sounds like a great idea. It might be a little hard for people to find microfibres on beaches as there so small. But I could see it working for larger objects. Have you heard of LItterati? You could do something similar here in NZ with Trailblazers. Users geo tag where they found the litter and comment on what company its from. E.g. Coke bottle found on Murawai Beach. The data could then be used to influence companies into more sustainable packing options.


Jennifer Mcguire Oct 13, 2017

Yep it was the larger objects as opposed to the microfibres I was thinking of...but your comments prompted me down that road. Thanks for the litterati tip I had never heard of it...I am really liking this thread it could dovetail well with what Trailblazers stands for....I could also see it having its own application too. Thanks for the inspiration I think your thoughts I really appreciate the input.


View all replies (2)

Joanne Jackson Oct 12, 2017

Hello there. What measurements have you done on the amount of micro-fibre collected as per the amount of garments? For example, how many micro-fibres that are produced from each garment are collected by your filter?


Jeremy Stead Oct 13, 2017

Hey Joanne, I haven't done any measurements on the amount of micro-fibres collected per garment. However, scientist have found up to 250,000 fibres can break of a single polar fleece. To many for me to count.

I have been in contact with 5 Gyres (Californian based NGO) who are the process of doing more research on this now. From what I understand there trying to identify how small the fibres can get. For example, are they 1mm or do they get down to 10 microns?

I used a 200 micron cloth to capture them, so if they get smaller, there more than likely getting through. This is super fine though.

If I win, I will do some of my own research into this. Below is a basic method to test this.

1. Dry and weigh fibres.
2. Drain through micron cloth.
3. Dry out fibres collected. Weigh them to see if the weight is the same as before the fibres were drained through cloth.

Through doing this I can work out how effective the cloth is. But need some basic lab facilities to do this.


DannoSmith Oct 16, 2017


Wool has traditionally been — and still is — an excellent product. It is natural, safe, and biodegradable. But our wool export earnings have been sliding for decades due to intensifying competition from synthetic microfibers. These unsustainable products are killing sealife. They have also been harming New Zealand sheep farmers, many of whom have been forced to switch to beef and dairying, which are pollutes our rivers and nearshore waters.

To combat the growing use of microfibers, there might be potential to form alliances with our local representatives for the international "Campaign for Wool."

The campaign should be encouraged to start including public education about the serious dangers of microfiber pollution to aquatic life, and the environmental advantages and sustainability of using wool instead.

Perhaps an extra tax on microfiber products, or even an eventual ban, could be proposed.

I realize that this goes beyond your filter project, but realistically your idea will be most viable as part of the larger campaign to promote natural fibers and textiles and to combat microbibers. Connect the dots...

Good Luck Jeremy!




New Zealand Wool Secretary
Campaign for Wool NZ Trust
Gardiner Knobloch Ltd
PO Box 145, Napier 4140



Vicki Linstrom
Campaign for Wool NZ Administrator
Wool in Schools Project Manager

Renata Apatu
Campaign for Wool NZ Trustee, Chairperson
High Country Sheep and Beef Farmer, Ngamatea Station, Central North Island

Craig Smith
Campaign for Wool NZ Trustee
Business Development Manager, PGG Wrightson Wool
Member of National Council of NZ Wool Interests/IWTO

Philippa Wright
Campaign for Wool NZ Trustee, Executive CFW Global
Managing Director, WrightWool, Waipukarau
Executive Member NZWBA. Member National Council of NZ Wool Interests
Member of WRONZ
Member of IWTO Working Groups

Richard Kells
Campaign for Wool NZ Trustee
Company Director/Owner, Kells Wool Ltd, Napier
Executive member NZWBA
Member National Council of Wool Interests
Member Federation of Wool Merchants (Inc.)

Sandra Faulkner
Campaign for Wool NZ Trustee
Sheep and Beef Farmer, Gisborne
Chair of Beef & Lamb ENI Farmer Council

Stephen Fookes
Campaign for Wool NZ Trustee
Owner/Partner Paragon Wool LLC, USA
Member of WRONZ
Board member of Wellness within your walls (WWIW)USA
Member of IWTO Working Groups
Director Wool Testing Authority Europe

Amias Taylor
Campaign for Wool NZ
UK Representative


Jeremy Stead Oct 17, 2017

Hey Danno, thanks for you comments. I've always loved wool myself. But never considered the impacts synthetic textiles are having on our wool farmers and the flow on effects of them having to change to dairy/beef farms.

Part of what I also planned on doing was educating students on the benefits of materials such as wool and the downsides of synthetics fibres. If all goes to plan, I should be giving my first presentation to a local school later this month. Going to take some of the points you made and add them into the presentation.

I can defiantly seeing us collaborating in the future.

Thanks again Danno!! Legend!