Cora Ball founder Rachael Miller: 'We wanted to be part of the textile microfiber solution'

Written by: Jo Gallacher | Published:
Rachael Miller

Marine plastic was for good reason one of the most popular topics of last year.

But alongside the sickening amount of plastic pollution seen on our beaches and ‘garbage patches’ floating in the middle of the sea are the billions of microplastics too small to be detected by the human eye.

Although the full extent of the problem is still unknown, scientists have confirmed that microfibers, made of plastic and chemical-covered non-plastics, are entering our waterways every day from the simple act of washing our clothes.

Most washing machines have a built-in filter, yet because these fibres are so small, they often escape to our rivers and seas. But what if we could capture them before they leave the drum?

That’s what Rachael Miller set out to achieve when she designed the Cora Ball, a laundry ball which gathers up the microfibers until they become a ‘fuzz’ able to be collected and disposed of. The laundry ball, using the same design principles as coral, is made from recycled synthetic rubber and can last for at least five years.

It’s early in the morning in Vermont when I chat to Miller, but she is full of energy and zeal. “I’m a sailor and swimmer and a total water person, I’m clumsy on land,” she says.

“The whole thing was born out of our work with Rozalia Project, a not-for-profit I set up nine years ago addressing the problem of marine debris and protecting the ocean.

“We learned about the problem of microfibers and it really screamed at us. We wanted to see if we could be part of the solution as we foresaw that it was going to be a big, big problem. And that’s proving to be the case.”

The product took two years to develop before being put on crowdfunding website Kickstarter where money is raised through a community of willing investors making small donations.

Crowdfunding has enabled plenty of start-ups to build their reputations and brands before hitting the market, and the Cora Ball was no exception.

She says: “Crowdfunding was quite a good fit for something like the Cora Ball. Back then there wasn’t a sustainability category, but we still made our goal in two hours and went over it by 3,500%.”

A visible problem

By collecting microfibers until they are large enough to be visible, the consumer can begin to recognise that problems of pollution are multifarious and are caused by all of us.

The reality is we are going to have to work a lot harder than simply carrying around a reusable bottle to reduce our impact. This, Miller believes, has helped the product grow in popularity in the US.

She adds: “When we launched Cora Ball, Trump had just been elected and anyone who cared about the environment was feeling pretty scared and a little helpless. We laid out our intentions in the crowdfunding method, if your product is popular out of the gate then you get a lot of attention.”

Although the Cora Ball is produced in America, it now has four eco-retailers in the UK. To support these businesses, Miller does not sell the product with online retailers such as Amazon. But the product is far from perfect given that it catches just 26% of all microfibers in a wash, meaning plenty are still escaping into our ocean every time we chuck in our laundry.

Miller says: “People say we’re not making enough of an impact, and we are working on trying to do better and improve the figure. But you could either do nothing or do something and make a positive change. We are not the only solution but we can be one to make a change while other solutions develop.

“There are some laundry bags on the market, but we rejected this idea as we wanted the product to address the whole wash. If you used a bag you would have to learn which types of clothing are the largest offenders, but we just do not have that information at the minute.”

The laundry ball can cause snagging on materials such as lace and heavy knit, but Miller argues these items aren’t the heaviest shedders. “All solutions have pros and cons, but we’re working on them.”

Complex issue

Plastics have become enemy number one over the past year, with many consumers opting to find plastic alternatives to alleviate their single-use conscience, yet Miller explains the textile manufacturing process is much more complicated.

“If our rates of consumption stayed the same, we would need three more planets just to feed people – we cannot feed and clothe the world on our agriculture. I don’t think going after synthetic clothes is realistic. We have to learn more about washing machines, textile sources, consumers and waste treatment.

“I am a proponent of doing synthetic clothes better by going to textile manufacturers and saying what can be done to make clothing more resilient? How can we keep it from breaking? Picture Olympic sportswear without synthetics – it would just be pyjamas.”

The next issue users stumble across is what to do with all of that fuzz collected on the laundry ball. It currently can’t be recycled, and Miller recommends simply putting it in your regular bin, which will inevitably end up in landfill. So how much can we see this as a viable eco-friendly alternative?

She says: “We’re working very hard to find a partner to recycle this material, but the problem we have is that the material is extremely mixed.

Contamination is one of the biggest challenges to reuse and keeping the value of the material. It’s not straightforward but we’re confident it can be done. At least it is being prevented from ending up in the bellies of sea creatures.”

Some users have begun to compost their leftover lint, but unless all clothes are organic down to the dye and truly naturally derived, there is no guarantee new chemicals aren’t being introduced.

Miller would now like to see a standardised way to test fabrics across all types of apparel and brands. If this knowledge was in the public domain, she argues this would enable designers to make educated choices when it comes to picking materials that shed a relatively low amount.

She adds: “Better decisions can be made and government support is warranted now. It’s already happening but governments can make it go faster.”

Given the variety of pollution out there and the hundreds of sources it comes from, there will never be a fix-all solution that can overcome the complexity of the problem.

Miller and the Cora Ball team are offering just one of many options out there for consumers to reduce their environmental impact. The Cora Ball is not a perfect product, nor does it claim to be, but it can contribute to a healthier planet.

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