Denim manufacturer Orta recently awarded the Orta Prize for Bio-Inspired Textile Processes to a team of Australian students from RMIT University at MoMA in New York City as part of the Biodesign Challenge program that partners university and high school students with artists, designers and biologists to reimagine biotechnology. The winning team developed Enzer, a water filtration and treatment system for microplastics that can be retrofitted to washing machines, therefore contributing research against ocean-water pollution.
Dr. Sedef Uncu Aki, manager at Orta, explains the reasons for supporting this award and described other examples of innovative and inspiring bio-based eco-friendly projects.
Why did you decide to support this award?
We are committed to finding innovative ways to improve the processes in our manufacturing that are not only sustainable for Orta, but also for people and the environment. We recognize that there is a growing bio-economy in which bio-technology and bio-engineered solutions are being developed to combat the environmental stress and waste every industry is creating. What excited us most about Bio Design Challenge are students—their brilliant and optimistic ideas that really pushed the boundaries of the way we as an industry currently operate. The denim industry cannot continue on its current course. We need to adopt more science-based natural solutions. Each team started with an environmental problem, and the many solutions the teams presented excited us with the potential they could give this industry and others for the future.
Enzer touched on one of the most invisible environmental threats—microplastics. We were impressed how students from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, made their research and how they thought of a near-term solution, while laying the groundwork for a next-generation that could potentially be applied to commercial manufacturing. The Enzer Biofilter is a water filtration system designed to be retrofitted to your pre-existing washing machine to capture microplastics as small as 0.5 microns. Created from stainless steel and built to last, the system has duel filters. The system functions as both a primary and secondary level of filtration by first isolating the microfibers and then breaking them down with natural enzymes. The students are designers who worked with a team of local scientists, and this approach that the BioDesign Challenge encourages is groundbreaking, in that it encourages critical design thinking and not just engineered solutions. The Enzer biofilter was designed to first empower people at home to lessen their own effect of microplastic runoff into local waterways. Their domestic filter is proof of concept before moving into industrialization, and that is where we are excited to see this progress.
Were there other interesting innovations developed by other finalists?
There was also the Ecolastane project from the Fashion Institute of Technology. Students obtained an alternative to elasthane through discarded oyster shells. According to the students’ research, 80% of the clothing worn in the US is produced with some percentage of spandex in them made with synthetic polymers that make spandex entirely unrecyclable. These students recognized that there is already bio-derived spandex on the market that is mainly from corn-derived dextrose. But they focused on how to create a full-circularity solution and found that the abductor muscle of oyster shells has this property. By using post-consumer oysters from local restaurants, the students could eliminate the need to create more waste in the process. After removing the elastin from these shells, they would be returned to the harbor to benefit New York’s shoreline and estuary. They successfully extracted the elastin and measured its purity. The quantity of elastin produced by the shells collected was small but workable for cultivation. While still in its infancy stage, it is their design-engineering approach to creating a hyper-local full-circularity process that may potentially provide another research for stretch fabrics.
Will Orta pour inspiration from some of these projects for its next projects and new fabrics?
We found all of the Orta prize student projects very inspiring—their creativity, design thinking and details to research and ecological impact went beyond our expectations. This is the kind of thinking Orta infuses into our Orta Blu sustainability division. All of the Biodesign Challenge teams presented concepts that are critical for next-generation processes and solutions and Orta aims to be at the forefront of integrating biodesign into our R&D, for today and future applications.