Since mass production began in the 1950s, plastics have become prolific in our lives from appliances to clothes, planes, cars, and medical and sports equipment. But recently we have become increasingly aware of plastics we mostly can’t see or did not intentionally produce, namely microplastics. And while we don’t fully understand the extent of the impacts of microplastics on our environments and our health, we know they are extremely widespread in our oceans and present potential physical and toxicological risks to animals and people.
Understanding how microplastics are produced and transported and preventing their increased proliferation has become a major focus for companies, scientists and governments. We are excited to announce our recent investment in Matter, a Bristol, UK-based company pioneering tech solutions for capturing, harvesting and recycling microplastics.
Microplastics and Their Impact on the Planet
Microplastics are tiny plastic particles less than five millimeters in size. Some microplastics are intentionally designed to be small in order to carry out their intended functions, for example, plastic microbeads in face wash or fine powders in toothpaste or sunscreen. Secondary microplastics come from large plastic materials that get ground down over time such as plastic bags, bottles, paints, electronics and synthetic clothing. Since so much is made out of plastics today, the microplastics these products shed are everywhere. Microplastics have been found in some of the remotest places on earth, from the peak of Everest to Arctic Seas.
While there are also microplastics in air and soil, the ocean has become a repository for the flow of microplastics, and most of what we know about microplastics has to do with their impacts on the marine environment. It is estimated that there are now over 24 trillion pieces of microplastics in our ocean. Marine organisms at the bottom of the food chain, such as plankton and fish larvae consume microplastics which then become magnified up the food chain. Marine life is harmed both by the ingestion of the microplastics themselves which can cause abrasion in digestive tracts but also because pollutants from the water can collect on microplastics and are then ingested with them. Additionally, the ingestion of microplastics can prove fatal for plankton which are the largest absorbers of carbon on the planet.
Humans are consistently exposed to microplastics that have found their way into not just seafood but also the air, drinking water, and foods like salt, sugar and honey. According to an analysis by the World Wildlife Fund, we are consuming around five grams of plastic every week which is about equivalent to a credit card's worth of plastic. We do not fully understand the long-term impacts of microplastics on the human body, though we do know that inhaling any type of fine particle can cause respiratory irritation. But if the impacts on marine life are any indication, there is certainly cause for concern. Plastics could affect digestive system health and functions. Additionally, there could be insidious effects from the chemicals used to make plastic. For example, bisphenol A which is found in the plastic linings of tin, can interfere with hormones and has been linked to health issues in animals. Research has also shown exposure to PFAS (‘forever chemicals’) used in plastics can be linked to the onset of cancer and other illnesses. Lastly, microplastics act as sponges for other chemicals which they then carry into the body.
In addition to the growing public awareness about microplastics, there is also an anticipated spate of new legislation aimed at addressing the microplastics issue. France has passed laws requiring integrated filters in new washing machines starting in 2025 and microplastic legislation is expected to expand into other Western European countries. This has added fuel to the push for solutions that can prevent the flow of microplastics into our waterways.
Matter's Microplastics Solutions
Matter was founded in 2017 by Adam Root, a former Dyson engineer. He and his wife had quit their jobs with plans to cycle across Europe for a year, but found themselves returning home with broken bones after just a few weeks. Adam had always been very passionate about the ocean and is an avid scuba diver. After learning about the extent of the ocean microplastics problem, he received a £250 ‘Will it Work’ grant from the Prince’s Trust to take apart a washing machine and build a filter that could capture plastics. After seeing its potential he founded Matter to continue to develop and scale microplastic filters.
Tackling such a prolific issue requires an arsenal of solutions, and Matter is working on three pillars: developing products through R&D, educating the general population about microplastics, and advocating for legislation that can prevent bad practices. Matter’s go-to-market strategy involves a D2C channel to build awareness and early adopters, B2B licensing strategy to major appliance manufacturers, and an industrial wastewater management solution targeting large wastewater companies and municipalities.
The company’s first product, Gulp, is designed to address the number one source of marine microplastics: synthetic fibers. Sixty percent of all textiles today are made from plastic fibers and washing machines are a main culprit of this type of pollution with 700,000 microfibers released into the ocean after every machine wash. That’s why Matter created Gulp, the world’s first self-cleaning microfiber filter. The product is easy to install and user-friendly with an out-of-the-box design that can be connected to the majority of washing machine models and placed conveniently above or next to the machine.
Matter is also working with companies to remove microplastic pollution from their operations through R&D pilot studies, feasibility programs and consultancy projects. For example, they are currently working with washing machine manufacturers to develop filtration systems that can be incorporated directly into washing machines through Matter’s patented anti-blocking microfibre filtration technology. The company is also working with commercial sites that see a lot of vehicle movement. Tires are the second largest contributor to microplastics in our oceans and businesses that have high vehicle movements are likely to be sweeping micropollutants including tyre rubber and precious metals down their drains. Matter’s R&D team is adapting its filtration technology to capture these microparticles in commercial and industrial settings to substantially reduce this pollutant source.
Not only is Matter aiming to stem the stream of microplastics into the ocean, but the company is also searching for sustainable methods and applications for recycling microfibers from our laundry. Findings from the initial research will be available in November and inform the next stage of research and development. The company has been asking people to send in their tumble dryer lint which will be used to assess the opportunity for cellulose extraction and test recycling applications for sustainable packaging. This is part of the company’s cradle-to-cradle ethos, meaning it is not enough to just remove waste from a system – they need to find a purpose for it.
Next, Matter is planning on expanding its patents and launching Gulp on Kickstarter while increasing marketing, advertising and education for this initial product.
Matter began its journey with the Builders Vision impact platform when the Builders Initiative Oceans team, through the Builders Initiative Impact LLC, chose to invest in the past year. With its growing demand and scalability, Matter earned the attention of the S2G Ventures team, making it the first company in the Builders Vision impact platform to partner with both Builders Initiative’s impact LLC and S2G Ventures. The company is currently raising a Series A to scale its innovative solutions for the capture, harvest and recycling of microplastics.
We are excited to work with Matter to raise awareness and design solutions to end the flow of microplastics into our oceans and close the loop on plastics waste.