First Lego League 6th grade girls’ team presentation: Microfiber pollution of oceans. All from different schools. There are three parts to this team’s competition project: (1) the project they’re presenting today, for which they had to research a problem within the theme of interaction between humans and animals (“animal allies”). They chose how microfibers (tiny plastic shards from fleece clothing) can end up in the ocean, be eaten by organisms, and then move up the food chain. They did a presentation in the form of a skit; (2) a robot game, on the same theme (animal allies), in which robots have to complete missions; (3) sharing their project with their communities.
Microfibers are teeny bits of fabric, from fleece clothing, that shed in the washing machine, and often end up eventually in the oceans. Fish are eating them either directly or indirectly, and 700 marine species are in danger. The fish on our plate may contain microfibers. Microfibers have been found in beer in Germany.
Before water from washing machines goes to oceans, it typically goes through treatment plants. Yet, there are so many of these fibers in the water that even if they filter out 15% of them, the volume entering oceans is huge. Upgrading treatment plants is challenging and expensive. Scientists are working on making washing machines more efficient at trapping these fibers. The team reached out to 200 adults and a few kids and only a few knew about microfibers and their effect on the planet.
How to prevent? Wash clothes only when necessary, in full loads, in cold water, and at lower speeds/gentle cycles. Using liquid soap and fabric softeners helps. The fabric industry is researching fabrics to figure out how to manufacture clothes that don’t have this problem; Patagonia is the premier example. There is a product in prototype (available 2017) that would go into the wash and capture microfibers. Polyester (including fleece), rayon, acrylic, and all synthetic fabrics are the culprits; natural fibers (cotton, wool, linen) do not present this problem. The older the item, the more fibers it sheds. President Obama signed a law last year (which will take effect next year) that will ban the use of microplastic beads in personal care items, but that doesn’t include microfibers for fabric.
The team became interested in this problem — discovered by ecologist Dr. Mark Browne and published in 2011 —through an article they read in school. The team, which meets 3–4 times each week, was featured in an article in the Acton Beacon, and has shared its findings with the local community and the New England Aquarium. They have completed one regional tournament, and will now go on to statewide competition. The group will continue to work to raise awareness of this problem; they may do a presentation for the local schools and perhaps for the 2017 AB PIP-STEM fest.
For more info: http://www.firstlegoleague.org/challenge