The bride wore fungi. Erin Smith announced plans to forgo a pricey wedding gown by growing one of her own out of bacteria, fungi, and other biodegradable resources back in 2014. Turns out, Smith is not alone. Innovators from around the world are seeking ways to turn food waste into apparel, ranging from shoes and purses to everyday wear and evening gowns. Their efforts might help save the planet.
The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that 1.3 billion tons of food go to waste each year, creating an annual global carbon footprint of 3.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency threw down a gauntlet: an initiative calling for a 50 percent reduction in national food waste by 2030. Upcycling, which in this case means finding innovative ways to address food waste, has been gaining steam as pressure mounts to stop filling landfills with foods and byproducts that can't be eaten, but can be repurposed.
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One upcycling practice that’s gaining momentum is the conversion of second-generation food waste—such as orange peels, coconut husks, and salmon skin—into synthetic fibers appropriate for use in apparel. These new fiber sources for textiles and clothing are better for the planet than nonrenewable, petroleum-based polyester. Not only do upcycled textiles bring sustainability to the fashion industry, which is second only to the oil industry for pollution, but they make for smaller (and happier) landfills. This report is part of TakePart's "Design and Innovation" series, which highlights the people and cutting edge technology working to solve the world's most pressing problems.
Sustainability is the springboard for the designs and development of Nau, a Portland, Oregon–based clothing line. In its efforts to stay on mission, Nau seeks out ways to use alternative materials in its clothing. In 2011, this led the company to 37.5 Technology (formerly known as Cocona) insulation. Nau jackets made with 37.5 insulation offer benefits such as wicking, along with temperature and odor control. The source of this ideal insulation: coconuts.
Gregory Haggquist, founder and chief technology officer of 37.5, didn’t set out to upcycle coconuts. Their use as insulation was a by-product of his research into an ideal source of activated carbon. The 37.5 process begins with the incineration of coconut husks. The resulting ash is blended with recycled polyester, creating a combined fiber for clothing insulation.
“The activated carbon matter is imbedded directly into the polymer fiber during the fiber extrusion process, so it’s permanently suspended in the recycled polyester fiber,” Mary Jane Murphy, Nau’s head of materials, explained to TakePart.
Joining Nau in the use of 37.5 technology are 60 global brands, including Adidas, Under Armour, Eddie Bauer, and The North Face.
Revolutionizing an Industry
Two billion pounds of fish and crab by-products are being discarded into the ocean annually. This statistic fueled Craig Kasberg’s passion to find ways to use fish and seafood in their entirety.
A former commercial fisher from Alaska, Kasberg grew up steeped in the culture and traditions of a coastal community whose economy relied on fishing. “Sustainable fisheries, by nature, cannot simply harvest more, so the only way to increase their resiliency is to utilize their catch to its fullest potential,” he told TakePart. To solve for any potential waste, Kasberg cofounded Alaska-based Tidal Vision in 2015 with Zach Wilkinson.
Aquatic leather and chitin/chitosan (a polymer extracted from crab shells) were Kasberg’s focus as he began researching upcycling possibilities. Recurring roadblocks were the processes for transforming these by-products into usable materials. Common practices involve harsh chemicals, which are expensive to dispose of properly. Also, the cost of harvesting and processing the by-products is higher than a potential profit margin. “We needed to start with high-value uses, like consumer products, to make it feasible to vertically integrate several by-product ventures,” Kasberg said.
Tidal Vision quickly developed ways to produce consumer products. By using only vegetable-based tanning products, salmon-leather wallets, belts, and a forthcoming handbag line were developed. A Kickstarter program launched last June garnered Tidal Vision’s first customers. The general public was given full shopping access by September 2015. “In less than a year in business, we've had over 10,000 customers in over 20 countries and expect to be in about 100 different stores by this summer,” Kasberg said.
Additionally, Tidal Vision developed a way to transform crab shells into chitosan textile fiber. Lowering costs and adding to the ease of production is a mobile facility that eliminates the need for shells to be shipped and allows for on-site processing. “This helps us support one of our core values as a company—to only use our technology to support fisheries that are managed sustainably by being able to go directly to the source,” Kasberg said. The only by-product of the process is an organic fertilizer, Tidal Grow.
In the fall, textile factories will be launching lines of shirts, socks, and base layers produced using Tidal Vision’s chitosan fiber in combination with hemp, cotton, and Tencel. Chitosan fiber is touted as being biodegradable, biocompatible, and nontoxic, as well as naturally inhibitive to bacteria and microorganism growth. Another bonus, per Kasberg, is that “it’s a better alternative to the silver nanoparticles used by the textile industry, which are a heavy-metal toxin that absorbs into the skin and washes out of clothes, polluting waterways.”
A Cuppa Shoes
Madrid-based Javier Goyeneche came across a fact that left him stunned: The world’s population is using five times more natural resources than the planet can generate. Frustrated by the squandering of these resources, he created the sustainable fashion brand Ecoalf. Goyeneche’s immediate target for a recyclable was easy—his morning cup of coffee.
Since 2009, Ecoalf has been collecting leftover coffee grounds, primarily from a Taiwan-based restaurant chain. The still-humid compounds are taken to a recycling plant to dry and have 11 percent of their oils extracted to maintain a microporousness that allows for binding with other materials. The result is a nano-powder that’s mixed with either recycled polyester or nylon polymers to create yarn.
“We didn't have statistics,” Goyeneche told TakePart about diving into the endeavor. “It was through investing time and money on sophisticated [integration and development] processes that we discovered using this type of postconsumer waste would result in a fast-drying fabric with special properties including UV protection and odor control.” Ecoalf uses these materials in products ranging from backpacks and purses to shoes and jackets.
The Ecoalf brand can be found in the Madrid flagship store and also in 430 global multi-brand stores, including Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, Harrods in London, Merci in Paris, and La Rinascente in Milan. “The first line hit stores in 2012, with the brand gaining an early boost from limited-edition products for high-profile partners and friends like Apple, Barneys [New York], and Gwyneth Paltrow,” Goyeneche said.
Ecoalf continues to forge ahead with its eco efforts. It has partnered in ventures with companies in 14 countries, including Korea, Japan, Portugal, and Taiwan.
Science Meets Fashion in the Kitchen
When Anke Domaske’s stepfather developed cancer, he became sensitive to chemically treated clothing. As a microbiologist with a fashion business, Domaske sought out a gentle and nonallergenic solution for her stepfather via natural fabrics. What her research revealed: Even so-called natural fibers such as wool and silk fabric can be treated with pesticides.
Domaske took to her kitchen and began experimenting. “I came across a process used in the 1930s to create fiber from milk,” she told TakePart. “However, it needed up to 75 percent formaldehyde, acrylic, and other chemicals for stabilization.”
Through Domaske’s efforts, the process was reinvented into one that’s zero waste, using 100 percent natural ingredients along with casein, a raw milk product that can’t be sold for consumption. “It only requires a maximum of two liters of water per kilogram of fiber and a maximum processing time of five minutes,” she said.
Those kitchen experiments led to success and the founding of the Germany-based Qmilk fashion label in 2011. Today, Qmilk biodegradable yarn is also used in bedding, carpets, paper, and medical textiles. Perhaps the best news of all—Qmilk’s dermatologically tested apparel has helped Domaske’s stepfather.
Shopping With Commitment
How can the general public lend a hand in these upcycling efforts? Through purchasing power. Before heading out for a bit of shopping, warns Bonny Bentzin, deputy chief sustainability officer at UCLA, “be aware of classic greenwashing—companies trying to tap into environmentally aware markets with look-alike products.” Instead, choose wardrobe items such as Karün sunglasses from Chile, Modongo shoes from Spain, or Osklen clothing from Brazil. “Look good, feel good” just took on a whole new meaning.