Does the Cora Ball capture plastic microfibres?

Cora Ball microfibre

A couple of years ago, a Kickstarter project caught my attention. It was shared on social media by someone I know who works for a leading organisation studying marine plastic pollution. I helped crowdfund the project and have been using the Cora Ball for about seven months in my front loading washing machine.

Microfibre pollution happens when agitation in the wash loosens very small fibres from clothing. Out they travel with the waste water into sewer systems and then waterways. If you guessed that there is no filter as small as a plastic microbead or filament, you’d be right. Microplastics are contaminating waterways, and to someone who enjoys eating shellfish and not destroying our special places, it’s sobering news.

Plastic microbeads from personal care products are arguably simpler to tackle. You can use microbead-free alternatives, petition producers to get the microplastics out of their formulations, and support legislative bans. But fibres from textiles are tricky. We can’t simply stop washing our clothes.

So what are we to do in the face of this disaster? The Guppy Friend, a sack to wash clothes in, has emerged as one potential solution. The Cora Ball is another. It’s a ball designed to go into the washing machine with clothing, where the arms are mean to capture plastic fuzz. The design is inspired by the filtering system of coral reefs. The inventor has even participated in studies of microfibre discharge into waterways in the US. The Kickstarter campaign was overwhelmingly successful.

The Coraball’s simplicity of use appealed to me. Toss it into the washing machine and then extract the plastic fluff that collects between the arms. It sounded simpler than stuffing and unstuffing the Guppy Friend. I also figured that once I realise my dream of dog ownership, it’d collect dog hair too. Heck, it would be great if it collected my hair, which mostly balls up on my socks in the wash. In my excitement about this possible solution, I pre-ordered three balls as part of the Kickstarter campaign. One for me and two more for family members who’d expressed interest.

Does the Cora Ball work to capture microfibres? Here’s my experience.

I have been using the Cora Ball for approximately seven months and it doesn’t collect much from any wash, including loads of synthetic clothing. We don’t have any microfleece or loose pile synthetics. Most of our synthetics are bike and yoga garb made of lycra or similar. It doesn’t collect more than a few strands of my long hair, which I still sometimes find balled up on my socks after washing. I don’t have a dog yet either (sob), so I can’t comment on its ability to catch pet hair.

Cora Ball microfibre

In the entire time I have used the Cora Ball, I’ve cleaned out fuzz twice. One load produced a noticeable amount of white fluff. I couldn’t figure out what garment was responsible. I was reassuring in a way to know that it could work. The fluff took a few minutes to remove with tweezers.

Cora Ball microfibre

Just before writing this, I removed this second pile of fluff. This is the accumulated amount of fibres since the earlier white fluff batch.

So in seven months, I’ve diverted two small fluff balls of microfibres from being discharged. Is this enough? What did I expect anyway?

Cora Ball microfibre

In truth, I’m having a hard time justifying the production of the ball (at least it’s made of recycled plastic) plus the shipping to get it from the USA, when I reconcile with how infrequently I’m removing fibres from the wash. The breakeven point is many years away, if ever, and it’s only spec’d to last five years. One of the circle end bits has already broken off.

I asked one of the people I’d given a ball to if they’ve had much success. He told me they’re not even using it. I don’t know what that tells me except that ease is relative.

Based on my own experience so far, I don’t recommend the Cora Ball as a solution for catching microfibres. I on the fence about the net benefit, and whether this is the best available solution. It captures some fuzz, but of course, my testing has no control. What if the friction of the ball creates more microfibre release? I would appreciate if the data from tests carried out by the company were made public, as I find the responses on their website to be vague in response to concerns like these.

One ultra low tech idea I’ve had is to wrap a nut milk bag (made of tight nylon mesh) around the end of the washing machine discharge hose to capture fibres on their way out. A similar idea to those nets on the ends of storm sewers that capture plastic bottles before they get out into the ocean. If I get around to trying this, I’ll let you know if it works. In the meantime, I’ll keep using the Cora Ball, if only to contribute to the knowledge base around this device and to see how long it will really last.

I’m interested to hear from any of you who’ve used the Cora Ball with different results to mine. Maybe you’ve had a completely different outcome with a top loading machine, plenty of fleece wear or pets, all factors I’d expect to increase the fuzz accumulation. I’m also interested to hear from any of you who have tried the Guppy Friend. Let me know in the comments.

In pursuit of zero waste dental floss

zero waste dental floss

I floss my way through some zero waste dental floss brands, and then I get on my soapbox.

This is a post I’ve held off publishing for a while. It feels…unimportant. Dental floss quite literally operates in dark crevasses.

And yet, I can recall feeling so strongly about floss at one point that I seriously considered developing a biodegradable option myself. I also bothered to buy and test these zero waste floss options, so…let’s not dismiss it. Let’s talk about it.

A ‘hot’ need is so powerful it catches you up and makes you consider doing crazy things, like online shopping, or buying laundry balls. I once bought a laundry ball at a green living expo, then realized I was totally duped by my own desire never to use laundry detergent again. I did it again more recently with the CoraBall to catch microfibres from my washing machine. In hindsight wished I’d analyzed the ‘research’  more closely. It’s not that these items don’t work (well, jury’s out on the CoraBall), it’s that I didn’t need a CoraBall as much as I thought I did when the crowdfunding campaign appeared in my Facebook feed. Don’t dismiss these hot needs in yourself, or others, but try to identify them for what they are. For these are the circumstances where greenwash and unsubstantiated claims prey on our good intentions. So my caveat to this post is this: if you’re looking for a zero waste floss brand, please read all the way to the end. Onward. 

Zero Waste dental floss brands I’ve tested

This isn’t a place about products and brands, but it is about sharing useful information, which may include items I’ve tried and liked (or not). And although I’m all for minimizing the scope of toiletries to save time, money and packaging, I’ll never give up dental floss. Floss is more than a spinach remover. It helps prevent gum disease caused by bacteria accumulating below the gum line, which can eventually cause bone loss (eek).

I’m always on the lookout for lower waste floss, with recyclable or compostable packaging and product. Until recently, nothing much was worth recommending.   

I have normally spaced teeth plus a permanent retainer (just a metal bar) on the inside lower front teeth, under which I need to be able to shimmy the floss. Here are some options I’ve bought with my own funds and personally tested over the past year.  It would be impossible for me to meaningfully compare production methods, so that’s not evaluated here.

The control: any drugstore floss

Floss you buy in any drugstore is cheap, functional and made of nylon coated in who-knows-what kind of Teflon family chemicals (remember this story?). The plastic outer is technically recyclable, but in practise I bet it’s not often. It costs about $3 AUD/100m.

Radius silk floss individual sachets

Radius offers compostable silk floss embedded in single use paper sheets that you tear to open. The floss breaks if you pull too hard and it doesn’t work well under my permanent retainer. Twenty sachets come in a slim cardboard box. I think it was $4.20 CAD for 20 sachets? I bought these a long time ago in a country far, far away. This is $0.21/day option. I think. Radius also sells  silk floss in a more traditional container. That container is plastic and not refillable, so I’m not really sure of the point. 

Noosa Basics dental floss with charcoal

Noose Basics makes a waxed bamboo thread. UPDATE: their website now indicates that the floss includes polyester threads. This isn’t the strongest floss and it sometimes breaks, although I’ve learned to be more gentle. Thumbs up to this Aussie company for trying something innovative with packaging. The cardboard point of sale packaging holds the spool, there is no additional container within. The spool still uses a small plastic ring and sometimes the floss gets tangled, but overall I like it and I can use it easily under my permanent retainer. I hope the producer can find economies of scale to the cost down, because only zero waste obsessives would pay a ransom of $12.95 for 35m. I’d also like to see more floss in each container. As it stands, we really need to compare three packages of Noosa Basics floss to one drugstore floss- the latter packs significantly more into the one unit, and is effectively ‘concentrate’. I can see why Noosa Basics doesn’t, as it would make the bamboo floss seem shockingly expensive (more on that below), I’m just saying, using more of other resources to avoid plastic is an unintended, yet common, outcome to watch out for. 

Dental Lace

Dental Lace offers a thick silk thread coated with candelilla wax. The floss is compostable and the glass and metal container is refillable with spools that come in plant-based plastic sachets. The thread has no inner spool which eliminates that small bit of plastic – smart. My only critique is that there is a purely decorative plastic sticker on the outside of the package whose only destination is landfill once you peel it off, as I did. Also, the price. This was expensive at $8.75 for 60m plus shipping.

Dental floss, opportunity cost, and what it takes for zero waste

You’re not failing at zero waste if you use conventional floss for ease or financial reasons. I’d be more annoyed if you sacrificed future dental health to save this small amount of plastic. A single takeout container probably uses the same volume of plastic as a packet of floss that’ll last 6 months*. Not to mention, we sometimes create more waste by shopping ‘low waste’ when we buy online. I’m not saying we shouldn’t ask for and seek out better options, supporting upstart businesses along the way. I’m asking that we keep things in perspective and question what we think we have to do to participate in the zero waste movement. It’s not all or nothing. 

It’s also good to interrogate the overall product design and volume of materials used. Most of the time, product packaging isn’t created with the  environment or practicality in mind, but to meet a demonstrated, and ideally hot consumer need. Packaging is shaped in response to the way a consumer perceives a product. And of course, you know I would say we’re an irrational species that respond to stimuli then make up a story to explain our choices, not the other way around.  

That said, if you do want to make the switch, Dental Lace and Noosa Basics are the best I’ve tried to date. UPDATE: I no longer recommend Noosa Basics, as it contains polyester thread. Apples to oranges though, they cost way more than conventional. Per 100m, you’re paying $37 for Noosa Basics and $14 for Dental Lace, compared to $3 for your basic drugstore variety. With my curiosity satisfied, I’ll floss my way through my stockpile of Dental Lace refills before I decide if it’s a priority for me to reorder. 

I can’t see most people going out of their way and paying more to reduce this part of their waste stream, unless extremely motivated, like I have been on occasion. If it’s challenging to find low waste floss easily and locally, I’d suggest we’re better off focusing on reducing waste in other areas of life until it is. We work to zero waste, we don’t never make waste. Big difference.

What do you think – is reducing dental floss waste worth it, or destined to be just another scapegoat for the inaccessibility of a ‘zero waste lifestyle’?

*20cm used per floss means five flosses per metre, so Noosa Basics should last me 175 days if I floss once a day.  

Books I read in 2017

Here are some of the non-fiction books I read in 2017. 

Last year I read about behaviour change, critical thinking, anthropology, and food. The more I learn about these topics, the better equipped I am to think critically about waste related issues. I read some novels as palate cleansers, but won’t include those here. Here are those non-fiction books I enjoyed or learned something from, or that I can remember having read:

7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Stephen R. Covey
I found this one at a little free library and finally read it. The concept of private victories resonated with me because I think there’s much to be gained in those small, personal moments of success in terms of keeping us on a path to lower waste living. I’ve also been mulling the habit of Thinking Win Win. Upon reflection, I realise that some instances I’d considered to be Win-Win outcomes have been Lose-Win where I sacrifice my needs to keep the peace. Something to work on. There is a reason this is a classic.

Fostering Sustainable Behaviour: An Introduction to Community Based Social Behaviour Change
Doug McKenzie-Mohr
Awareness for critical environmental and social issues is usually over-emphasized – awareness is not usually the issue, inaction is. So why don’t we humans do what we’re supposed to when given all the right information? This textbook focuses on how to set up your community change program for success, including how and why to properly investigate barriers to adoption in target audiences. It also offers guidance on selecting appropriately specific and non-divisible behaviours to target for change.

Les Robinson
Read this book, especially if you are involved in public behaviour change programs. Robinson makes a strong case that we’ll be more effective by seeking to change the path, not the person. Effective solutions are sticky, leverage existing motivations, and enable the behaviour change. A good companion read to Fostering Sustainable Behaviour, as there are similar concepts at play.

Psychology for a Better World
Niki Harré
A useful read for anyone on a sustainability journey who wonders why others aren’t coming along with them. The author explains that understanding identity is a precursor to identifying shared values between ourselves and others – understand that and you can appeal to their values more specifically and effectively. I reviewed it in more detail in this post where you can also find a link to read the ebook for free.

Weapons of Math Destruction
Cathy O’Neill
Social inequality results in wasted human potential, and unnecessary hardships for some members of society. Some widely applied algorithms are merely baking in biases to systems that affect employment and lending amongst others. The author is a Harvard trained mathematician and former Wall Street quant turned Occupy activist. She now spends her time educating on how mathematical models can insidiously undermine socio-economic fabric, and how to design and administer these more fairly.

Bad Science
Ben Goldacre
In these times of Woo, it’s good to be able to tell good science from quackademic nonsense. Epidemiologist Ben Goldacre pleads for us to save our mistrust for those who really deserve it, and not fall prey to clickbait content that misinterprets science and creates unfounded fears. He gives us the tools to be able to think critically about claims we hear on purported benefits or dangers of everything from vitamins to vaccines. The basics of good study design won’t be new for those who’ve taken any statistics, but still a good and entertaining read with some surprising stories from the medical research front lines.

Weaponised Lies: How to Think Critically in a Post-Truth Era 
Daniel J. Levitin
With fake news and clickbait likely at an all time high, our ability to parse what is real is of the utmost importance. As with Bad Science, much of this won’t be new for anyone who’s taken a stats course,  but the author does a good job of digesting the important stuff into layman’s terms and calling out specific number and word manipulations we should all watch out for.

Poisoned Planet: How Constant Exposure to Man-made Chemicals is Putting Your Life at Risk
Julian Cribb
While slightly hyperbolic in tone, the author usefully takes a macro view of pollutants, since they cycle through ecosystems in a number of ways and none of us can individually detox in the ‘juice cleanse’ sense of the word. According to the author, the accumulation of man-made chemicals is dropping our society’s average IQ by a couple points each generation. Outtake: it’s impossible to contain pollution, it needs to be reduced at the point of production, and precaution must prevail. Personal detox is a myth, so put down the charcoal smoothie and start getting involved in the wider community efforts.

Revolution in a Bottle: How Terracycle Is Eliminating the Idea of Waste
Tom Szaky
It’s the story of Terracycle’s beginnings, from selling worm wee in coke bottles to becoming the world’s largest recycler of soft plastics, recounted by Tom Szaky, the founder. It’s a quick, punchy read and you’ll marvel at his aplomb and enthusiasm for both entrepreneurship and waste reduction.

Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth
Judith D. Schwartz
This curiously titled book is no anti-vegan manifesto. Rather, it’s one journalist’s deep dive into how the soil functions to store water and carbon. There is a good overview of the mechanics of carbon sequestration by plants, a discussion of the importance of mychorrizal fungi in the soil food web and of course, how a look at how herbivores can be used in the management of brittle landscapes.

The World Until Yesterday
Jared Diamond
My rule of thumb is to read anything Jared Diamond writes. He delivers yet another thought-provoking book about the long history of human behaviour before the more modern era, and differences between tribes and states. Lots to unpack there.

Originals: How Non-conformists Move the World
Adam Grant
The author’s Malcolm Gladwell-esque writing style is an easy to read and entertaining enough. Not a whole lot of detail stuck so I should probably re-read. He lands some sound points, including the one about the peril of hiring for cultural fit. Down the line this rids a company of important alternative viewpoints that would have helped avoid groupthink. Instead he advocates actively looking for cognitive diversity. Hard to argue with diversity.

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions
Dan Ariely
Another book about the irrationality of humans and how silly we humans are. Ariely is a personable writer, who covers similar ground to Daniel Kanehman and his ilk. Entertaining, although I preferred Thinking Fast and Slow.

The End of Plenty
Joel K. Bourne
Agronomist and National Geographic journo Joel K. Bourne asks how we will feed a planet of 9 billion. There are no silver bullets, but some intriguing possibilities are explored. This is an openminded look at various food systems, Malthusian pressures and food history (including the ups and downs of the Green Revolution).

The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food
Dan Barber
I listened to this as an audiobook from the library. I’m normally impatient with audiobooks, but Chef Dan Barber weaves a good story. He explores how we can do better and eat more sustainably by learning how and what the land provides, rather than the conventional approach of imposing arbitrary crops on the land.

Quicksand Food (podcast)
Stefan Posthuma
I’m loving this series of interviews with the food producers of the Illawarra region in New South Wales. You’ll hear from cafe owners, organic farmers, leaders of food rescue initiatives, expert baristas and more to get a look at how the wheels of each business turn.

Grown and Gathered
Lentil and Matt
Yes I read cookbooks. Matt and Lentil have created a gorgeous, immersive read that starts with the place – their Victorian farm – and ends with the food. I have returned to this one again and again this year since getting it as a gift for Christmas 2016.

Which would I recommend?

I enjoyed them all, but if pressed would most recommend the 7 Habits, Changeology, Bad Science, Cows Save the Planet, The World Until Yesterday, The End of Plenty, and The Third Plate. Some of the others start to overlap, or the ideas weren’t totally new to what I’ve read before. For more, here I posted a list of 15 books that influenced my outlook on sustainability. In 2018 I’m thinking of backing off from the pop social psychology to reach for more permaculture, Australian history (all 50,000 plus years), and soil related books. Thanks to Amanda for writing this post on her year in books and inspiring me to do the same.

Tell me what books have you read and enjoyed lately?

Safety razor pros and cons, a year on

When I first made the switch to a safety razor, I was nervous! I didn’t know anyone who shaved with one, and information I found online was confusing and made it all sound so scary. Here’s a quick update on how it’s going, over a year later. My original review is here

Pros of shaving with a safety razor: 

  • Takes no more time to shave than with a disposable razor.
  • Not sure why this is the case, but I am finally able to shave my knees properly. Sensitive areas other than knees are easy to shave without irritation too.
  • I use a regular soap and water, nothing special. The trick is to turn the water off when lathering up.
  • I find I go through blades slowly, which means it’s not costing me much. I broke down the costs in my first post about the safety razor if you’re interested.
  • Spent blades are useful to have around the house – I use the one old blade to remove labels from jars.
  • Looks sort of majestic, no?

safety razor

Cons of shaving with a safety razor: 

  • They aren’t allowed in airline carry on with the blade inside. Depending on your job/lifestyle, you might want to hold on to your last disposable as a travel backup, or just be prepared to check a bag. I can’t say this has really impacted me, but my friends who basically live on airplanes should consider this.
  • Depending on the blade brand, they might come in a little plastic container. Compared to the packaging you’d get when you buy a pack of disposable heads, it’s still less. If really bothers you, chose the blades that come in a cardboard box – Personna and Astra were in cardboard, and I think I like Personna best anyway.
  • The closeness of the shave might depend on the blade brand. I’ve been working through a sampler pack with five different brands to see which blade suits me best. The idea is to start with the beginner blades (they protrude the least from assembly) and work up to the most advanced. I haven’t gotten far, but even so, I prefer the brand I’m using now, a ‘middle’ sharpness. I remember thinking in the beginning that the shave could have been a little closer, and now I find the effect extremely smooth. This is sort of a con that became neutral.

safety razor blades

The verdict

I’m still quite happy with my safety razor. I’ll admit I was hesitant to invest, but now that I’ve used the safety razor for over a year, it’s just normal, and I don’t see any reason I won’t have it for the rest of my life, which could be three times as long as I’ve even been shaving up ’til now. Other zero waste hair removal options are sugaring or just going father in between shaves at minimum.

If you have any questions or want to share your own experience, feel free to ask in the comments below.