Tiny Baubles Transform Eco-Hostile Laundry Washing

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Xeros proprietary polymer cleaning bubbles.
The tiny baubles are actually polymer beads.
Photo Credit: Xeros via ec.europa.eu

One more energy-intensive, water-consuming, polluting activity may be about to go down the drain, or at least achieve a huge environmental makeover. It’s something pretty ubiquitous: laundry washing. You may be surprised to find out that laundry is a $100 billion global industry!

Since the 1950s brought electric washers into ordinary American homes, laundry technology has seen little innovation. A British company called Xeros is about to give it a major shakeup by pioneering a more resource-friendly technology. The new “green” washers consume up to 90% less water, up to 50% less energy, and about 50% less detergent than the brontosauri currently inhabiting our basements. For this invention, Xeros racked up the prestigious “Best Technological Breakthrough” in the UK’s Climate Week Awards in 2011. WWF considers Xeros a global “Green Game-Changer.”

Beads used by Xeros for eco-friendly clothes washer.Instead of circulating clothes in many gallons of fresh, soapy, and rinse water, the Xeros machine tosses a laundry load around with round beads made with nylon or an equivalent polymer. A Xeros wash can thus use much less water and detergent than a conventional wash, and it produces far less wastewater and chemical pollution. Here’s how Amanda Alvarez described the invention in Physics Today:

The Xeros washing machine looks like your standard washer, but those “suds” peeking out of the door are anything but soapy. Xeros, a company based in Rotherham in the UK [with a U.S. headquarters as well], is looking to revolutionize domestic and industrial laundry alike with “bead cleaning.” The technology, the company claims, is not only superior to traditional soap and water but also environmentally friendly.

Here’s how it works. You load the washer from the front, like many of our current machines. The beads reside in a hygienic wet sump low in the machine for storage. The wash cycle introduces them into the load. They displace water and help remove stains from soiled sheets, towels, and other fabrics. They also capture and store the dirt removed. When the wash is done, before powering down, the machine removes the beads from the load. One set of beads does hundreds of washes (tested to 500). Then it’s collected and recycled into other plastic goods. Car dashboards are the example the company uses.

The engineering techniques used to perfect the beads were complex. After tinkering with the surface area, weight, and chemistry of the beads, product scientists fine-tuned four independent factors—temperature, chemistry, time, and mechanics—that affect washing. In what is essentially a “reverse dying” process, the beads adsorb foreign materials trapped in cloth. (Parents will be especially happy that the technique does especially well with stains from grease, which can turn a dress shirt into a dishrag.) As well as washing clothes better with less water, less cost, and greater environmental care, the company claims its technique keeps textiles “newer for longer,” thus saving consumers money at department stores.

But is replacing water with polymer beads a good thing for the environment? Is the problem just moving from using too much fresh water to using hydrocarbon-rich plastic?

The company says:

Xeros beads can be used hundreds of times before they need to be replaced and they never go down the drain. Better still, after replacement, the used beads will never be thrown away, and can be re-used in other industries that already deal with recycled polymer. The way we look at it is that Xeros borrows the beads from the polymer supply chain, puts them to good use in Xeros cleaning, and then puts them back without any incremental plastic production. [And] you reduce detergent chemistry and the associated environment damage of its effluent and carbon footprint. You clean at lower temperatures so reduce the carbon footprint of heating power consumption.

Xeros first used its cleaners to revolutionize industry-level cleaning. Hospitals are major potential users. In hotels, a full 20% of all water used goes straight to the laundry. The Regency Hyatt in Reston, Virginia, has been very happy with its Xeros machines. Commercial laundries like Crest Cleaners in Clifton, Virginia, and Sterling Linen in Manchester, N.H., are also using the bead-kneaders with great results. The company’s next step will be rolling out the machines to consumers. A smaller-scale domestic version is slated for US launch sometime next year.

Those at home who actually do the laundry will doubtless ask how the clothes smell when they come out of the machine, and if it removes stains, and what about dyes used to color their clothing? Well, if it works for hospitals and the hospitality industry, we expect it will work great at home.

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