CLEANR
Sean Conway, Communications Director
[email protected]

Cleanr.life

The burden of microplastics has been felt around the world, and efforts by governments and companies to regulate and innovate are advancing the fight against microplastics invading our waters and lives. This problem has yet to be solved, but an Ohio-based startup company believes it has one solution that can address it at a major source: washing machines.

Washing machines are the largest source of microplastics entering the environment, accounting for 35 percent of total emissions. Every year, they discharge billions of microfibers into the environment. And with every load of laundry, up to 1.5 million plastic microfibers are sent into waterways.

Textile abrasion is a primary source of microplastics, and synthetic textiles are often to blame. The cheaper manufacturing process for synthetic textiles lowers the quality of the fabric, resulting in breakdown in the wash and wear cycles of usage and allowing synthetic materials into washing machines and the environment.

CLEANR’s external (left) and internal (right) retrofit filters.

Enter CLEANR.

CLEANR is a microplastic-filtration company from Cleveland, Ohio, that produces a washing machine filter that is radically different in its design than any other on the market. Founded in 2020, CLEANR has a patent-pending vortex-styled filtration unit that touts a 90 percent capture rate down to 50 microns and a 300 percent longer life span than current market designs. The company won six awards at the 2023 IFA Awards in Berlin for its filtration systems, and it is eager to bring more products to commercial markets this year. CLEANR has also partnered with GKD Group, a mesh-filtration manufacturer, to aid in its microplastics solutions.

A basking shark filter-feeding in the ocean. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Making Waves

When people hear about game changers coming to market, they might imagine think tanks and dozens of industry professionals laboring night and day, but CLEANR was founded by three engineering students as a side project.

The founders all attended Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. They are Max Pennington, the company’s chief executive officer; Chip Miller, chief operating officer; and David Dillman, chief technology officer. After learning about the outpour of microplastics from washing machines, Pennington and his co-founders got to work. Their initial designs covered traditional solutions but fell short of optimal.

The traditional approach for washing machine filtration, a simple sieve solution, was found to be inefficient in its capture rate due to its full-force design, which allows the full force of the wash water to barrage the filter. This lowers the amount of microplastics that are captured and leads to constant buildup. Pennington recalled the accidental flooding of a basement when prototyping sieve solutions, due to the sheer force of fluid that plagues this design. So the three searched for solutions elsewhere.

Instead of looking to other products on the market for inspiration, the co-founders looked at filter-feeding fish and found a game-changing solution.

By Nature, for Nature

What sets CLEANR apart from traditional filtration is its filter’s design, crafted through biomimicry, an invention method that learns from designs found in nature. Examples of popular biomimicry solutions found in everyday applications include Velcro technology, which was inspired by examining plants with burs, and early successes in aviation, which were inspired by the study of birds.

The CLEANR trio worked to engineer a solution that works in a way that is similar to how fish filter feed, keeping the selected particles via a fluid vortex while filtering out water through either gills or whatever natural sieves the fish have developed. Just as these fish help to keep algae and other microorganisms in healthy balance in the ecosystem, CLEANR’s VORTX technology reduces the unhealthy levels of microplastics in the ecosystem.

A diagram depicting the VORTX’s flow and design.

How VORTX Works

As the diagram above shows, water is spiraled through the filtration unit, which traps microplastics in a continuous vortex, allowing for a higher capture rate.

The vortex created by CLEANR’s technology optimizes the filtration process by creating a flow of water that forces microplastic and microfiber particles to concentrate at the center of the spiral. In this process, wastewater is pushed out through the sides, and the inclusion of a mesh sleeve around the spiral allows for further capturing of any microplastics that may avoid the spiral’s vortex. This sleeve is uses GKD’s patented stainless steel microplastic mesh, preventing stray particles as small as 50 microns from exiting the spiral.

As the stream of microplastics is pushed through, clean wastewater exits the sides of the spiral, which is encased in a mesh sleeve to prevent stray microplastics from escaping. Ninety percent of the water exits through the spiral, while just 10 percent exits through the capture unit that serves to trap any remaining particles in suspension.

Consumer Solutions

Pennington emphasized the effort to make the filtration solution an ideal product for consumers. Pennington and his co-founders’ vision was to ensure that the experience of cleaning the filter was an easy—and dry—experience for the consumer, comparable to cleaning out a dryer lint-capture unit. So they designed the CLEANR Pod, a biodegradable capture unit that is easily removed and replaced when performing its user-friendly maintenance. Maintenance takes less than 30 seconds per week, totaling only two minutes per month to effectively capture and dispose of the accumulated microplastics.

There are different models designed for different household needs. Some models include Wi-Fi-enabled features to easily track the amount of accumulated microplastics in one of the CLEANR Pods and notify consumers on their phones when maintenance is needed. The integration of these smart features is designed to be compliant with any potential laws that would make the filters mandatory.

Major Changes in Microplastic Legislation

Lawmakers around the world are advancing legislation to address the global problem of microplastics. While many of these laws are pending, Pennington suggests that rebates may be the more immediate solution to combat the outpouring of microplastics into the environment. Incentives could allow consumers to integrate filtration solutions into their home appliances with a rebate that could address the cost of the added filtration system.

According to Sean Conway, CLEANR’s communications director, microplastic pollution is a problem that can be solved in our lifetime if the proper steps are taken. The growing body of research around the long-term effects of microplastic exposure makes the need for action apparent, and companies like CLEANR are helping to pave the way toward cleaner, more cost-effective solutions for protecting our planet.

CLEANR works out of the Case Western Reserve University innovation center, the Sears think[box]. The think[box] offers seven stories of versatile workspaces that allow for rapid iteration and advancement in designs. Pennington cites the center’s 3-D printing capabilities as a major benefit that allowed CLEANR to bring its product to life.

About the author

Keller O’Leary is the managing editor for Water Conditioning & Purification International.

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