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Winner of Orta’s Biodesign Challenge Removes Microplastics from Washing Machines

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Microplastics have massive effects on the world’s oceans, waterways and wildlife—and more than one-third of the waste comes from textiles alone.

According to 2017 research from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, about 35 percent of microplastic waste comes from sheddings from synthetic textiles like polyester (which makes up about 60 percent of the world’s garments).

Students at Australia’s RMIT University have developed a potential solution to the problem of microplastic shedding from domestic washing machines.

Last week, Orta, a denim manufacturer, awarded the Orta Prize for Bio-Inspired Textile Processes to a team of researchers at the university who invented Enzer, a water filtration and treatment system which can be retrofitted to the standard washing machine.

“We found the Enzer filter system very promising for mitigating the runoff of microplastics from washing machines that pollute waterways, simply by fitting a filter onto the machine’s water hose,” Dr. Sedef Uncu Aki, head of Orta’s denim research and development, along with sustainability, sales and marketing, said in a statement.

“The filter has an enzyme that breaks down the microfibers that contain these plastics. Microplastics in synthetics are a systemic problem, and we see great potential in what these students proposed, especially for industrial application in water treatment systems,” Aki added.

Polyesters, nylons and acrylics have long been part of the apparel lexicon, and with the explosion of athleisure, the proliferation of products that utilize the stretchy synthetics has grown.

Another group of finalists for the Orta prize worked on a solution for Spandex waste. The popular stretch material is petroleum-based, and doesn’t biodegrade. A group of students from Fashion Institute of Technology conceived a new fiber, made from elastin harvested from discarded oyster shells, which would replace the elastane used in the fabrication of Spandex. 

Orta’s Biodesign Challenge program brings together high school and college students with artists, designers, and biologists to “reimagine biotechnology,” the company said. This year, 36 finalists were chosen from more than 100 submissions.

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