Your Clothes May Soon Be Crap—and That’s a Good Thing
“Your shirt is made of what?”
That question could become cocktail-party chatter when a Dutch designer releases her first line of clothing made from the excrement of cows.
It’s not as crazy as it sounds: If consumers can get over the initial ick factor, they can help protect the environment by wearing finely tailored manure instead of letting it leach into rivers, lakes, and aquifers and release planet-warming methane into the atmosphere.
The unconventional idea was conceived by Jalila Essaïdi, a 35-year-old designer and entrepreneur who was asked by provincial government officials to help reduce excess animal waste in the Netherlands, where farmers produce more manure than the available land can absorb.
Essaïdi’s patented technology removes cellulose and acids from cow dung and converts them into a biodegradable plastic called Mestic, after mest, the Dutch word for manure. Mestic can be made into paper, textiles, and other items, replacing petroleum-based products.
“It is a chemical separation method which allows us careful control of the nutrient composition of both the solid and liquid fraction of manure,” Essaïdi wrote in an email. “The farmer keeps the liquid fraction which now meets his desired nitrogen and phosphate levels. We take the solid fraction.”
Essaïdi said the same process could be used on manure from pigs and other livestock.
Ramon Sanchez, director of the sustainable technologies and health program at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard University, said the technology “seems very feasible.”
One advantage is that a cow’s digestive tract naturally breaks down cellulose, saving time, money, and energy.
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“The most energy-intensive and expensive part of the process is the pretreatment to break the [cell wall], but that is essentially what ruminants do to get energy from food,” Sanchez said. “The catch here is to see if there is enough cellulose left in dung to make it a cost-effective process.”
Food determines cellulose content. Dung from grass-fed cows probably has more cellulose than manure from cows raised in feedlots, where they typically eat corn, soybeans, and grains.
Dana Perls, senior food and technology campaigner at Friends of the Earth, is concerned that the patented technology has not been made available to the public.
“These experimental technologies need to be transparent, particularly before being rubber-stamped as sustainable,” Perls wrote in an email. “We need to discuss potential concerns in addition to potential benefits, and we need strict and sensible health and environmental safety testing, regulations, and standards.”
“Plenty of big brands showed their interest in the material,” said Essaïdi, who declined to identify them. She added that her company will soon license the technology to several partners.
But will fashionistas buy it? It’s easy to imagine the snickering on late-night television, with childish jokes about “poo-poo pants” or worse.
“It depends on cultural traits and how well informed is the consumer,” Sanchez said, adding that Mestic is perfectly safe. “All of the bacteria and fungi in dung are killed during the process of extracting cellulose, and cellulose itself is a chemical compound that is absolutely clean and is unlikely to produce any adverse health effects.”
It all comes down to marketing, he added.
“If I were to launch a dress made out of the natural secretions from the Bombyx mori worm, it is very likely that this will trigger the ‘ew’ factor,” Sanchez said. “However, what if I say that I’m selling a silk dress? Both are exactly the same product. The impact of the ‘ew’ factor depends on the level of information shared with the consumer.”