When Rachael Miller, CEO of Cora Ball, had an idea for a product that would help protect oceans and rivers, she turned directly to the public for support. “Crowdfunding was our strategy to do our first production run,” says Miller. Not only did their Kickstarter campaign raise more than $350,000 from about 8,600 backers, it was also a vital part of testing and developing the product’s potential environmental impact.
The Cora Ball, a device you toss into your washing machine with your laundry, catches microfibers, which would otherwise drain out and pollute vital waterways. The product, which is now available to purchase online, is “the first of its kind,” says Miller, “[it’s] designed to be easy to use, easy to clean, to last for five-plus years, and to help people be part of the solution to microfiber pollution.” She says the company’s online backers helped “work out the myriad of problems with production, to get to the point where we just launched.”
Miller first tangled with the huge, near-invisible microfiber problem through her research at the Rozalia Project, an ocean conservation nonprofit. The issue begins with our clothes, which are made up of millions of tiny microfibers (some as small as half a red blood cell). Each time we do the laundry, fibers are shed into the wash water, which goes down the drain, taking those microfibers through water treatment facilities, and eventually into oceans and rivers. Trillions of these microfibers flow into waterways this way—washing a fleece jacket once, for example, causes up to 250,000 microfibers to shed.
Synthetic materials, like polyester, nylon, and spandex, are a major cause of microfiber pollution. Although the microfibers they shed are tiny, they can still leach toxic chemicals into waterways, and other pollutants can latch onto them, compounding the problem. Synthetic microfibers can also be hazardous to marine life and can even filter down into human diets through seafood, or livestock that was fed fish meal.
But “you can’t just ban plastic, synthetic clothing,” says Miller. Synthetics are the most pressing part of the problem, but “it’s not the whole story,” she says. Even natural fabrics like cotton are often produced with dyes and optical brighteners, chemicals which also have an impact on marine ecosystems when they wash down the drain. Miller knew she needed a solution that would address all kinds of microfibers.
Inspired by undersea coral, Miller, along with her husband James Lyne, and technical designer Brooke Winslow, used biomimicry—modelling an invention off something in the natural environment—to design Cora Ball. Coral, says Miller, “is in flowing water and it pulls tiny things from the flowing water.” Which is exactly what her team wanted to do with microfibers in the laundry.
A brightly colored plastic sphere with tapering layers of hooked arms to catch fibers, the Cora Ball works with any kind of washing machine. The results might not be visible to users at first—it takes time for the tiny fibers to build up. But left in with the laundry for a few weeks, microfibers will accumulate in the device’s branches, forming fuzzballs, which can then be picked off and thrown in with regular trash. To really make a difference, figured Miller, the Cora Ball had to be both effective and affordable, allowing lots of people to contribute in small ways to a larger solution.
Even if the ball only caught 10 percent of the microfibers shed in a wash cycle, says Miller, it would have been worth going to market, because across many users, the product would still be making a significant environmental impact. The team has been able to do better than 10 percent: Cora Ball’s own testing says the device collects up to 35 percent of microfibers in a load of laundry, and independent testing has rated its effectiveness at 26 percent—enough, as Miller puts it, “so if everyone gets a little bit of the fibers, they’re really going to make an impact.”
In the company’s crowdfunding campaigns, “we led with an environmental message,” says Miller. “We said, straight up, ‘this is about our waterways, and about lots of littles making a big difference’” Many of the people from around the world who invested in the project contributed more than money, providing feedback on the more than 70 variables—like water hardness, clothing type, washer settings, and type of detergent—that determine how many microfibers a load of laundry produces, and how many of those microfibers are picked up by the Cora Ball. As Miller says, their crowdfunding audience was “full of people willing to help us figure that out.”
Some backers left feedback for designers through the Kickstarter platform comment system, and others even joined a Cora Ball Innovation Team, which received “insider communications and opportunities to do specific tests” on the product. When the initial round of Cora Balls was shipped last November, the Innovation Team was the first group of backers to receive the product so the company could start gathering their experiences right away.
One interesting discovery sparked by the Innovation Team, was that the Cora Ball catches pet hair alongside microfibers, which gives users the unintended benefit of clean clothes without clinging pet hair and might even make the device more effective. “We suspect that the more hair the Cora Ball is able to catch, the more fibers it catches,” says Miller. “Hair helps aggregate fiber.”
These crowdsourced details may seem trivial, but they help the Cora Ball team hone the real-life impact of their work. “It gives us more confidence now to go to the open market,” with the Cora Ball, says Miller (currently it sells for $29.99 on the company’s site). Miller and her partners are betting that a lot more people will want to invest in a simple, low-effort way to contribute to tackling the far-ranging problem of microfiber pollution. All you have to do, she says, is “leave it in your washing machine and let it do its thing.”