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Biotech startup is growing bacteria that make sustainable dye for denim

Of the 4 billion-plus pairs of jeans that are made each year, most are dyed with petroleum-based dyes that use chemicals such as benzene and formaldehyde. At some factories, the toxic wastewater from the process is dumped into local rivers. But at a Bay Area lab, a startup called Huue is experimenting with a less toxic way to turn denim blue: using bio-based dyes brewed in bioreactors.

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The original blue jeans—think Gold Rush-era Levi’s—were colored with a dye called indigo that was made from plants. But new synthetic dyes quickly replaced the natural products.

“As of about a century ago, when chemical dyes were introduced, because they were so high-performing and so scalable, they basically completely overtook the more renewable plant-based method,” says Michelle Zhu, CEO of Huue. While some denim designers still use plant-based indigo, it’s rare.

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Words by Adele Peters