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ORTA Prize 2019 Winner: This Washing Machine Attachment Wants to Combat Microplastic Pollution

The eco-modern generation is marching toward a green revolution, and they want to wear denim that tells a new story.

As denim manufacturer ORTA seeks to move the sustainability narrative from scarcity to abundance, it’s using its partnership with Biodesign Challenge (BDC) to push students from top design schools to create products and rethink processes using biotech. By joining students with top-tier scientists, ORTA has developed a platform for envisioning positive and transformational applications for sustainable denim manufacturing.

Teams at this year’s event were asked to consider how living processes fit into textile lifecycles, alternative fibers and production, and students reflected on how their manufacturing and application affects users, ecosystems and the environment.

Selected from more than 100 teams at 36 universities and high schools, the 14 teams that submitted for the Bio-Inspired Textile Processes prize presented before leaders in art, design and biotechnology to an audience of 400 over two days on June 20-21 at Parsons School of Design and at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.

The top three finalists for the ORTA prize came down to the Saucolors, Ecolastane and Enzer solutions, with Enzer bringing home the prize. Developed by a team of Australian students from RMIT University, Enzer is a water filtration and treatment system for microplastics that can be retrofitted to washing machines. It’s meant to combat the issue of microplastics that are released in the washing cycle by polyester, nylon, acrylic and other synthetic fibers.

Microplastics are a growing global problem: According to a 2017 International Union for Conservation of Nature report, it’s estimated about 35 percent of the microplastics that enter the ocean come via synthetic textiles. The cost-effectiveness and high performance of polyester makes it a popular choice for today’s athleisure lifestyle, and about 60 percent of clothing today contains polyester.

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“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,” said Dr. Sedef Uncu Aki, head of ORTA’s denim sales and marketing, PD, R&D and sustainability. “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.”

Awareness of issues around sustainability and ethics is becoming a key concern for many consumers when making apparel purchases—especially for millennials, often called the eco-modern generation, whose purchasing decisions are becoming more discerning.

Aki said the Millennial Impact Report discovered that 87 percent of millennials would be more loyal to a company that helps them contribute to social and environmental issues. “They will be leading and creating the change for the better,” she said. “At ORTA, we are very proud to be a part of this change.”

The prize finalists also tackled the environmental damage that Spandex causes. Ecolastane (developed by Fashion Institute of Technology students) seeks to create biodegradable replacement fiber derived from elastin found in post-consumer oysters collected from local restaurants, while SauColors (Universidad de los Andes in Colombia) is a dye for the denim market inspired by the blue color of a swallow’s feces, a result of feeding on elderberries.

“Rising consumption around the world is causing a landfill and waste crisis, which is challenging ORTA to reimagine denim, and turn waste and scarcity of resources into abundance,” Aki said.

ORTA believes the Enzer system can be scaled within an industrial environment and intends to support and communicate with the RMIT University students while the project remains in development.

Learn more about ORTA’s Blu Sustainability Platform and Biodesign Challenge