Sometimes, a problem just “screams at you.”
That’s how clean-water advocate Rachael Z. Miller felt when she learned about microfiber pollution — the tiny clothing fibers, microscopic pieces of plastic and more that are making their way into our oceans and rivers by the trillions through appliances like washing machines.
Microfiber pollution is “likely going to be one of the biggest problems our ocean faces,” she says. And she views her co-invention, the Cora Ball, as part of the solution. The device catches those tiny tidbits before they enter our water supply — and folks are scooping them up by the tens of thousands. To date, she and her team of eight have sold about 50,000 of the $38 balls to customers both online and in 85 shops around the world.
Though she launched the venture in 2017, Miller is anything but new to this cause. Rather, it’s an extension of work she’s been doing for about a decade through her Burlington, Vermont, nonprofit, the Rozalia Project, which fights for the welfare of our water by coordinating clean-up efforts, education initiatives and solutions-oriented research.
De-Contaminating the Ocean
Miller first learned about microfiber pollution in 2013 during her work with the Rozalia Project. At that time, there was little information about how serious the issue was, and even less insight to be found regarding how to address it. Still, she became stuck on the idea of helping solve it — immediately.
She added what facts she could find about the issue to the Rozalia Project’s educational offerings, but she wanted to make a difference “right away — like, right away — and the educational component is definitely playing the long game.” The Cora Ball offers just such an immediate, and tangible, solution. “We wanted to make an impact as fast as we could by gathering as many microfibers as possible and stopping what was flowing out of people’s machines,” she says.
A paper published by researchers at the University of Toronto says the Cora Ball catches 26 percent of the microfibers per load, on average. It does so when added to a load of laundry by gathering particles that come loose from clothing, sheets, towels and other washable items — in the same way coral catches trace amounts of food (hence the name).
In addition to making money — profits that she says go back into the work the Rozalia Project does — advertising the Cora Ball has also given her an opportunity to elevate the problem itself in our public discourse. Her innovation has been written about in publications like Forbes, The Guardian and MarthaStewart.com.
Starting Up to Save Marine Life
The journey from prototype to market took several years, and numerous modifications. In April 2017, it was ready for some outside assistance. Miller launched a Kickstarter campaign in the hopes of raising $10,000 to get the (Cora) ball rolling — it ended up raking in over $353,000.
After launching the successful Kickstarter campaign, she and her team were able to finish developing a flexible, reusable, recyclable product that “you clean yourself, like a hairbrush” and that’s certified to last 5 years. Crowdfunding contributors received their balls in November 2017, and the e-commerce site went live to the public the following May.
Looking ahead, her goals for the Cora Ball are “working on understanding it, and its use in the world, better.” Specifically, she wants to dive deeper into the variables that impact how much microfiber pollution a household generates, and relate that to the amount a Cora Ball can catch.
It’s a challenge, as she and other researchers are “dealing with a problem that is quite literally microscopic,” Miller says. But after completing a recent expedition with National Geographic — looking into how the problem is affecting water, air and soil along a portion of the Hudson River stretching from the Adirondacks to the Atlantic Ocean — she is energized to keep working.
Encouraging More Women to Join the Cause
Given the scientific component of her clean-water work, Miller is often one of the only women in the room. Especially as the climate crisis accelerates, she wants that situation to change. “We certainly can’t have only 50 percent of the population working on it, that’s for sure,” she says.
Miller views this as a missed opportunity. “I think everyone brings relativity and intelligence to a problem,” she says. “We need a whole team — it doesn’t make sense to have a lack of diversity working on this.”
Miller also encourages women to rethink their roles in solving our climate crisis. “Innovators and inventors, whether they’re coming up with a great educational program or an effective policy or a new gadget, aren’t just dudes in their 20s from Silicon Valley. That is not the only version of an innovator.”