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This Smog-Eating Laundry Detergent Turns Your Clothing Into Air Purifiers

We all need more motivation to do our laundry anyway. What better than helping to clean the air around us?

This Smog-Eating Laundry Detergent Turns Your Clothing Into Air Purifiers

Here’s another reason cities need more pedestrians: If someone is wearing clothes that happened to be washed in the right detergent, just their walking down the street can suck smog out of the surrounding air.

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For the last few years, researchers at the Catalytic Clothing project have been testing a pollution-fighting laundry detergent that coats clothing in nano-sized particles of titanium dioxide. The additive traps smog and converts it into a harmless byproduct. It’s the same principle that has been used smog-eating buildings and roads, but clothing has the advantage of actually taking up more space.


“If you were to unravel the fibers in clothing and set them out as a single surface, we’re all wearing the equivalent of a tennis court,” explains Helen Storey, professor at the London College of Fashion.“The other advantage is that we walk around in pollution, and that movement is an aid. It allows more air to be purified.”

On a typical London street, the researchers calculated that a pair of jeans washed in the detergent could take out 80% of the nitric oxide in the air around the wearer as he or she walks along.

The detergent is now in development with a major laundry manufacturer, but there are a few hurdles to overcome–like how to market a product with a main selling point that benefits the greater good.

“You personally don’t benefit,” Storey says. “The person behind you benefits. So one of the other challenges for the industry is how to market altruism. We’re used to marketing something that makes you more beautiful or cleaner or better fed. The idea of marketing something where someone else benefits more than you do is a challenge.”

Another issue is the fact that the product isn’t compatible with the usual scented detergents.

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“The catalysts can’t distinguish between a good smell and a bad smell,” says Storey. “And they get rid of perfume. So that’s a very big challenge, because most companies that make detergents also produce detergents with a scent because psychologically, we’re convinced something is clean if it smells clean.”

One place to start may be China, where people aren’t as attached to smells like “liquid breeze” or “April fresh.” “In China they have a very different relationship to scent, in that it’s not as important to them culturally as it appears to be in other parts of the world,” Storey says. “And given that China has probably the biggest pollution problem, it’s actually interesting to use that as the first trial market.”

Eventually, for the idea to really work, the researchers say that all detergents would have to use the additive–and companies would have to collaborate in bringing it to market. “It’s going to need a new business model in order to deliver it,” Storey says. “Just at a time when the world needs to be behaving as if it’s more connected–because it is–here comes technology that would actually require us to do that.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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