A dress that dissolves in the wash is just one result of a project to create a new generation of eco-friendly fabrics

Dresses that melt in the wash are the latest, and possibly strangest, environmentally friendly innovation to hit the world of fashion.

They are the fruit of the "Wonderland" project, a unique collaboration between a pioneering British designer and scientists at the country's leading universities seeking a solution to the "Primark effect" – the ever-rising quantities of discarded clothing being sent to landfill sites.

Last month, the Environment Select Committee found that the proportion of textile waste at council tips has risen from 7 per cent to 30 per cent in five years.

Helen Storey, a designer and professor at the London College of Fashion, teamed up with Professor Tony Ryan from the University of Sheffield and Interface, a research centre at the University of Ulster, to create the Wonderland project.

The team created plastic dresses – made out of a similar material to washing capsules – that disappear on contact with water, with the aim of drawing attention to the problem of waste plastic. "It is about getting different disciplines together to solve a global problem," Professor Storey said.

A touring exhibition, which began at the London College of Fashion, and in which the dresses are hung from scaffolds and lowered into giant fishbowls, dissolving in dramatic patterns as they are submerged, will be returning to the capital for inclusion in the Brit Insurance Designs of the Year awards at the Design Museum on 13 February.

The plastic is made from biodegradable polyvinyl alcohol. By using varying dye weights, chemists altered the movement of the plastic when it hits water, making interesting patterns as the dresses dissolve.

A film of the project has also been made by the fashion photographer Nick Knight, which shows the model Alice Dellal going from clothed to naked in just nine seconds.

The brainchild of a fashion designer, associated with a famous photographer and fronted by a socialite, the project was guaranteed coverage in glossy magazines, but ran the risk of being dismissed by the scientific community as a publicity stunt. However, "fashion has the power to reach across boundaries", said Hannah Teare, the fashion editor of Tatler magazine. "It can create a buzz and awareness."

And many scientists are pleased the exhibition is drawing attention to valuable research that often goes unacknowledged. "It will have scientific value, in a way that is quite unusual" said Dr Mark Moloney, fellow and tutor in organic chemistry at St Peter's College, Oxford.

The Wonderland team is now working on a project to design "catalytic clothing", which would use the surface area of clothing to harness pollutants that would then be neutralised by washing. "Clothes have a massive surface area, and this surface could be used to purify the air," Professor Storey said.

Collaborations of this kind could signal the beginning of a new era of co-operation between fashion and science. A Centre for Fashion Science recently opened at the London College of Fashion, alongside a new MA course in fashion and the environment.

Professor Storey added: "When I started working across fashion and science 10 years ago, fashion people would say 'if you can't buy it in Harvey Nicks, we're not interested', and scientists said 'it's about dresses, why do we care?'. Now that's not the case."

The Brit Insurance Designs of the Year show runs from 12 February to 14 June at the Design Museum, London