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Can Squid DNA Solve Microfiber Pollution?

One company is spinning biodegradable fibers from waste methane emissions. Another seeks to program microorganisms to synthesize biopolymers from agricultural waste. Still other groups are investigating squid DNA, green chemistry and lasers as the basis of novel textiles and coatings.

All five—Mango Materials, Werewool, Tandem Repeat Technologies, Natural Fiber Welding and Pangaia x MTIX—are sharing the $525,000 cash pot that makes up the Microfiber Innovation Challenge, a competition spearheaded by Conservation X Labs and funded by the Flotilla Foundation and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Just in time for World Water Day on March 22, the companies are being lauded for their efforts with tackling the problem of microfiber pollution, which can occur when textiles slough off tiny flecks of material during laundering. Though synthetic fibers, such as polyester and acrylic, receive most of the flak for generating mite-sized pieces of plastic that infuse ​​the environment, their natural counterparts can be just as bad if they’ve been dyed, treated or processed with hinky chemicals such as polyfluorinated compounds. As Krystle Moody Wood, founder and principal at Materevolve, a technical-textile consulting firm from California, previously told Sourcing Journal, it’s “really about persistent toxicity.”

The winners of the challenge, which fended off competition from 19 countries, are looking at textile production that doesn’t come with any of the baggage.

“These five worthy winners share a revolutionary potential to protect planetary health and stop the harm from microplastic pollution on ecosystems and human health,” Alex Dehgan, CEO of Conservation X Labs, said in a statement. “These tiny plastics are found in our drinking water, the food we eat and even the air we breathe.”

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Mango Materials, a company from Oakland, Calif., for instance, is using a novel gas-fermentation process to create a naturally occurring, non-toxic powder that can be converted into pellets or melt-spun to create fibers for textiles. Illinois’s Natural Fiber Welding, which has buy-ins from nameplates such as Ralph Lauren and Allbirds, manipulates hydrogen bonds in natural fibers such as cotton to deliver high-level performance without the use of synthetic additives. Philadelphia-based Tandem Repeat Technologies employs genetic sequencing and synthetic biology to produce Squitex, a self-healing, shedding-resistant fiber based on the protein structure found in the tentacles of squid.

London startup Pangaia, which has made innovative waves for its wildflower-based “down” and pollution-derived dyes, teamed up with MTIX to leverage the latter’s multiplexed laser surface enhancement technology to modify the surfaces of fibers within a fabric so they don’t split off in the wash—without using water or chemicals or creating waste. Werewool, a New York firm, designs fibers at the DNA level with tunable characteristics such as color, elasticity and moisture management. The final products, it says, are naturally vibrant in hue, which freezes out the toxic processes used to dye materials. Another upside? At the end of their useful lives, the fibers can be returned as nutrients to the ecosystem.

All winners will be invited to show off their innovations at a “solutions fair” at Under Armour’s Baltimore headquarters later this year.

“Under Armour is excited to be a partner on Conservation X Labs’ Microfiber Innovation Challenge,” said Kyle Blakely, the sportswear brand’s vice president of materials and manufacturing innovation. “The winning innovations are at the forefront of the field using technology to create next-generation fibers for sportswear and apparel that will allow brands like Under Armour to meet our sustainability goals.”