The future of laundry could be cleaning with plastic beads, rather than with water, according to Xeros, a small company based in the northern English town of Rotherham.
Their bead cleaning technology was developed at Leeds University and Xeros is currently working to commercialise it. According to the company, these polymer beads, used in washing machines instead of water, can “agitate, attract and transport away stain and soil from textile surfaces”. The beads absorb dirt into their molecular structure.
The bead cleaning idea was conceived from studies on how water consumption in the dyeing industry could be reduced, says Xeros chief executive officer Bill Westwater. But the developers of the process started also to look at commercial and domestic laundry. “We thought we could create a business model that works,” Westwater says.
The beads spin in the washing machine along with the dirty garments, and dramatically reduce the water requirement – by up to 90%. The beads are reusable and recyclable, capable of “hundreds of washes before reaching life span,” the company says. They have also proven at least as effective as standard washing with water, especially for removing grease and oil. Laundry detergent is still needed, but at reduced quantities –Xeros’s process consumes only about half of the chemicals of standard washing processes. The company claims that bead cleaning is the “first real innovation” in laundry for 60 years.
However, Xeros beads cannot be used in machines that are designed for washing with water. For the future use of the technology, a switch to bead cleaning washing machines will be required, though Westwater says that these will not be more expensive than current washing machines.
Xeros is currently promoting bead washing to commercial laundries. Bead cleaning machines have been installed in pilot projects in commercial laundries in the United Kingdom. The company is also promoting the technology in the United States, and has installed bead washing facilities in two businesses: a commercial laundry in New Hampshire and a 518-room hotel in Virginia. These installations will enable the environmental and cost benefits of bead washing to be measured.
Westwater believes that use of the technology in commercial environments will mean Xeros will be “proven by professionals,” which eventually will be an advantage in promoting bead washing to consumers. Consumer take-up will take time, however, Westwater admits. However, feedback from consumer research has been positive, he says. “My fear was that our biggest difficulty with consumer adoption would be inertia, but actually that is not what [our research] found”. In particular, the Xeros technology means “no compromise on cleaning,” and bead washing machines will compete on price with standard washing machines – the main concerns for consumers, Westwater says.