There’s a new weapon in the fight against eye-watering, lung-clogging, planet-warming air pollution: your clothes.
As improbable as it sounds, a project from a group of London-based researchers is out to make your pants and shirts the new frontier of sustainable fashion. With their effort, called Catalytic Clothing, the researchers have formulated a laundry detergent that uses the same kind of technology that’s behind smog-eating billboards, sidewalks, and buildings. The detergent coats clothes in tiny particles of titanium dioxide. The additives then attract smog pollutants and catalyze their oxidation, producing a safe by-product.
How much air can clothes washed with the special detergent purify? According to the project’s website, if the air or clothing moves quickly enough, one square meter of fabric can suck 0.5 grams of nitrous oxide—a pollutant emitted by cars—out of the atmosphere a day. (A light-duty vehicle releases about 0.017 grams of nitrous oxide per mile.)
“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,” London College of Fashion professor Helen Storey told Fast Company. “The other advantage is that we walk around in pollution, and that movement is an aid. It allows more air to be purified.”
Catalytic Clothing is in talks with a large laundry manufacturer to get the product to market. To make an impact, Storey said that all detergents would have to incorporate the catalyst in their products. But getting consumers to buy them could pose a problem. The cleansers need to be unscented, and individuals may find little personal gain from eschewing their spring meadow detergents.
“You personally don’t benefit,” Storey said. “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.”