2016-07-07 / Front Page

A Major Endeavor to Clean Oceans of Microfibers

Vessel Collects Invisible Threats in New England Waters
By James Merolla


Capt. and Rozalia Project co-founder Rachael Miller holds the microfiber catcher, a device developed through her non-profit foundation's research that might be the salvation for ocean water pollution on a micro level. The device, thrown in a washing machine, collects microfibers from clothing synthetics that Miller's research shows has invisibly entered our waterways for decades, affecting the food chain from shellfish to humans. Photo on left shows collected debris. (Photos by James Merolla) Capt. and Rozalia Project co-founder Rachael Miller holds the microfiber catcher, a device developed through her non-profit foundation's research that might be the salvation for ocean water pollution on a micro level. The device, thrown in a washing machine, collects microfibers from clothing synthetics that Miller's research shows has invisibly entered our waterways for decades, affecting the food chain from shellfish to humans. Photo on left shows collected debris. (Photos by James Merolla) We may be eating our bicycle pants.

That could be the conclusion of the scientists aboard the American Promise, a 60-foot research vessel that has sailed for four weeks along the waters from Kittery, Maine, to Cape Cod Canal, through New York Harbor to Albany, N.Y., down the Hudson River, out Long Island Sound from the Battery to the Race, to Newport and back.

Part of the Rozalia Project, a crew of nine has collected 139 sample bottles of water [plus an additional 50 for partners], which will be studied in a lab when the ship returns to Kittery later this week.


Patagonia employee, Dana Wilfahrt throws the sampling bucket while Massachusetts scientist Matthew Hurst prepares the sample bottle. Patagonia employee, Dana Wilfahrt throws the sampling bucket while Massachusetts scientist Matthew Hurst prepares the sample bottle. The crew includes Annie Tuthill of Jamestown, a college senior whose summer internship aboard American Promise includes photographing and video recording the weeks of research.

The vessel docked for just one night at Fort Adams, and Rachael Miller, captain and co-founder of the project, explained the project’s purpose – to protect and clean the ocean from the surface to the sea floor by identifying microscopic marine debris, usually smaller than a human red blood cell.

“We use technology to develop solutions to clean up marine debris. This expedition is dedicated to synthetic microfiber solutions. Our clothing is breaking up and washing out of washing machines into public waters. All of the synthetics – dacron, plastics, rayon, polyesters – are breaking down,” said Miller. “A thread is really many, many threads. For lack of a better term, we’re eating our bicycle pants, our ski pants, our workout clothing. Science did not even know about this breakdown five years ago.”


Guest scientist Abby Barrows, from partner organization Adventure Scientists, counts microfibers in a sample from the Hudson River. Guest scientist Abby Barrows, from partner organization Adventure Scientists, counts microfibers in a sample from the Hudson River. As a sailor and skier herself, Miller said her crew did not necessarily believe that using plastics in clothing is a bad idea. “They stretch, they are warm or cool; there is no chafing, no blistering. There are benefits from the clothing itself and clothing the entire world in cotton, hemp and wool is unrealistic,” she said. “I don’t know that we can both feed and clothe the world through agriculture. But, we now know our synthetic clothing is breaking up, breaking down, and washing out, so we need to do something about it.”

Shellfish and fish eat the fibers first, and Miller points to independent scientific research confirming this. There are also suspicions that toxins such as DDT and PCBs, among others, stick to the fibers, causing havoc with marine reproductive cycles. We, of course, then consume the seafood.

“I don’t eat fish, but have relatives who do and I don’t want them eating plastic,” said Miller.

The captain took visitors down below to the center of the vessel, where she held a magnifying device to a shirt, then shorts, and even to a sneaker, revealing thousands upon thousands of microfibers ranging from 70 microns to just three microns in just one tiny section. “A red blood cell is seven to eight microns. These are really small,” she said.

But the Rozalia Project – which Miller named after her great-grandmother who brought her grandmother to America aboard a small vessel for a better life – is also working on the solution to the problem: a microfiber catcher.

An open hollow plastic ball about eight inches in diameter, with what looks like a sea anemone at its core, the catcher goes inside washing machines during the standard washing cycle.

“We want the water to flow and we want to catch the little things,” said Miller. Tested in the most popular types of washing machines (according to Rozalia’s correspondence with large vendors such as Lowe’s and Home Depot), the team hopes the device – which they plan to retail at about $20 with replaceable core collectors – will be available for use in washers by next spring.

“We hope to market it with subscriptions, partnering with businesses in filling and replacing the element inside,” said Miller. One tentative plan would be to have consumers sign up for a subscription so that a new inner catcher is mailed around the time it needs to be replaced. The consumer would then send the used catcher back in the same box for recycling.

Miller said a family of four with a dog would likely have to replace the device every eight weeks, but more development is in the offing.

Tuthill, whose photography and videography have detailed the summer excursion in brilliant detail, got involved after biking through Fort Wetherill in Jamestown and seeing a shocking amount of trash along, and in, the water.

“I’m a senior in college, a native islander, and I started documenting the pollution,” she said. “My dad let me know about this internship. I thought it was the coolest thing ever, I applied, and Rachael Miller called me and said, ‘Come aboard.’ I feel as if I’ve learned so much. It has been a privilege to be here, using my photography skills to do something near and dear to my heart.”

In fact, the Rozalia Project’s roots date locally to 2010, when it partnered first with Sail Newport and Providence Community Boating. The ship left Newport Wednesday for a stop at Patagonia Clothing in Boston, giving a free interactive presentation of their cause and how the public can help.

“The challenges are immense. We made this problem, but we believe we can fix it. With the microfiber catcher, we think we can make the biggest impact we have ever made,” Miller said. www.rozaliaproject.org.

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