Superstar Lady Gaga stirred a controversy when she wore a dress made from meat slices at the MTV awards, but would she be willing to wear clothing made from food waste? Well, that opportunity has arrived.
Food waste represents the single largest type of waste entering landfills in the U.S. according to numbers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. An enormous amount of non-edible byproducts creates a twofold strain—the costs associated with waste disposal and environmental costs of food waste in landfills. Environmental consequences include increased greenhouse gas emissions, chiefly from the methane and carbon dioxide triggered by decomposition.
The amount of food waste is predicted to increase parallel to the projected rise in world population, anticipated to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. The challenge for now and for the future is to develop methods to curb or at least control the waste. Innovative thinkers have put to the task and are focusing on technologies to transform food waste into income, exciting the interest of imaginative entrepreneurs as well as established industry. The concept of using food waste to make textiles is being developed by several new and creative enterprises, for uses that include clothing, upholstery fabric, “leather,” and “silk.”
Orange Fiber is the brainchild of two Sicilian graduate students from the Polytechnic of Milan—Adriana Santanocito and Enrica Arena. Sicily has a massive production of citrus and consequently generates considerable amounts of citrus waste, up to 700 tons per year. Orange fiber is offering a solution to reduce the burden of this waste by using it to make textiles.
The pair of students patented a method to create sustainable fabrics from citrus juice by-products. With financial backing from two noted Italian entrepreneurs, Orange Fiber became an innovative startup in February 2014.
Their raw material is citrus pulp (in Italian called “pastazzo”), which is essentially cellulose. The inedible pulp that would otherwise would be discarded is spun into a type of yarn, followed by a finishing process that uses a “nano-enriched” citrus essential oil. The result is a silk-like cellulose yarn designed to be blended with other fabrics. The 100-percent citrus textile is lightweight, and can be opaque or shiny according to production needs.
Orange Fiber is headed into commercial success thanks to the renowned Italian design house Salvatore Ferragamo. The haute couture operation has produced a daily wear collection of spring/summer clothing made with Orange Fiber fabrics.
Another Italian invention is called Vegea, a biomaterial having a registered trademark of Vegea company. Vegea was founded in 2016, in Milan, by architect Gianpiero Tessitore, and Industrial chemist Francesco Merlino.
Their product, a leather-like material, is derived from grape marc. Marc solid contains the remains of grapes after pressing—skin, pulp, seeds, and stems of the fruit. The inventors of Vegea say that the marc has a high content of multifunctional components that lend themselves to modification for creating fabric. And, they state that Vegea is animal-free, using no animal derived by-product in its production process.
The company is in the process of developing other bio-materials from vegetal waste to deliver alternatives to fossil non-renewable sources, with potential application for the furniture, packaging, automotive, and transportation industries
At the Mestic company in Eindoven, Netherlands, the saying is “manure matters.” Mestic has patented a process to directly convert animal manure into new materials such as biodegradable textiles, plastic, and paper. This innovation was triggered in 2015, when the agricultural sector of the Noord-Brabant area in the country solicited for solutions to a growing high phosphate and nitrogen problem from cow waste. The Dutch livestock industry was exceeding its agreed-upon phosphate ceiling, with a total of 172.9 million kilos of phosphate produced from livestock manure in 2015.
Designer and entrepreneur Jalila Essaïdi went about to completely deconstruct manure and use derived cellulose as raw material for new products, including haute couture clothing. Essaïdi sees herself as a pioneer looking for solutions for major social issues, and Mestic is a manifestation to all of her works.
The California company Bolt Threads has launched a product called Engineered Silk. In developing the fabric, the creators bioengineered a process use fermentations of sugar, water, salts, and yeast. The resulting liquid protein undergoes further processing with wet-spinning that turns the liquid into fiber, in a process similar to the way that acrylic and rayon fabrics are made. The firm states that its Engineered Silk has the identical chemistry to naturally occurring silks from spiders or silk worms.
Bolt Threads touts the “Made in America” theme. All production is currently in the U.S. and the firm indicates they plan to keep it there, using domestically grown crops and manufacturing. The company says that Engineered Silk was motivated by the fact that the textile industry is among the dirtiest industries on the planet. According to the World Bank, 20-percent of water pollution globally results from textile processing. The firm says it is committed to developing products with the lowest possible environmental footprint.
The waste from kombucha tea forms the grist for a line of wearable products created by several designers, including Young-A Lee, an associate professor of apparel, merchandising, and design at Iowa State University. Kombucha tea is a fermented drink, formed by symbiotic bacteria and yeast, and often touted for health benefits. The bacteria-yeast complex creates cellulose once the brewing process is complete. The finished product is cellulose-based fabric for clothing, handbags, and the like. The kombucha culture can also be combined with yeast to create a curd, which is then stretched and dried, becoming a sort of “vegan leather.”
In Australia, Peter Musk heads the country’s kombucha bio-textile research program at Queensland University of Technology. He has described kombucha fabric as smelly and unpredictable but sustainable. His colleague and department head, Dean Brough, says “In principle you could actually make a garment out of kombucha fabric, put it in a blender, re-blend it and make another garment because it’s just a cellulose fabric.”
The “kombucha-clothes” concept was pioneered in 2003 by London-based fashion designer Suzanne Lee. The downside is short shelf life. Normal wear and tear will cause the fabric to decompose since the fabric is somewhat hygroscopic. Treating the fabric with oils or similar hydrophobic substances help to increase shelf life, and research continues.
Another effort to turn food waste into fashion comes from a Philippines firm, Ananas Anam, which has the patented process to convert pineapple leaves into an environmentally friendly leather alternative. The textile, Piñatex, in addition to doing away with the fruit refuse, additionally provides a new revenue source for pineapple farmers.
Fibers from the pineapple leaves are extracted then woven by hand, creating a glossy but stiff, material that is breathable and comparable to raw silk. The fiber takes natural dyes very well. The firm makes several types of fabrics from pineapple fiber. Piñatex has been used commercially to make sneakers, bags, laptop cases, and similar consumer goods.
Piñatex is the creation of Carmen Hijosa, who left her work in the traditional leather industry and spent seven years at the Royal College of Art in London, developing the material into a patented product while she earned a PhD. Hijosa is now running the start-up from her London base–at age 64.
Plastic Bottle and Coffee Yarn
Singtex, based in Taipei, Taiwan, is the inventor of S.Café an eco-friendly yarn, made from plastic bottles and coffee grounds, created in 2008. The firm advertises that their yarn has de-odorizing properties, is fast drying, and UV-resistant. Made from discarded plastic bottles and coffee grounds, this green, high-tech yarn is not used is an individual fabric, but is applied to other textiles. There have been applications with sports clothing, outdoor recreation clothing, home clothing, casual clothing, underwear, bed ware and accessories. Clothing brands Hugo Boss, Timberland, and Warrior have created products using S.Café. A new development by the company, a fabric called Stormfleece was launched in 2017, as a weather-resistant fiber for ski wear and similar outfitting.
Fish Skin Leather
Canadian firm Sea Leather Wear Fish produces leather and suede from the waste of the canning industry. The Calgary-based company purchases from the canneries the skins of non-endangered fish such as cod, salmon, carp, sturgeon, catfish, and perch. Normally, canneries would dump skins in the oceans where they become another pollutant.
Atlantic Leather in the tiny town of Sauðárkrókur, Iceland is another enterprise that converts fish skin to leather. The firm boasts that its products are is environmentally friendly in two ways: they use raw material that would otherwise be dumped; and the production process makes use of renewable hydro and geothermal energy on the island.
The manufacturers say their process ensures odorless products. Similar in strength to cowhide with the appearance of reptile skin, fish skin leathers and suedes can be used for handbags, belts, clothing, small accessories, and shoes, as well as furniture and interior decoration. Recently designers at Nike created a line of fish leather shoes. Prada and Dior have reportedly also experimented with the material
Chitin is a polysaccharide found in the outer skeleton of arthropods including insects, crabs, shrimp, and lobsters. Chitosan is the deacetylated form. It is the second most plentiful, naturally occurring polymer, after cellulose, and its structure is similar to cellulose. For commercial use, chitin is principally sourced from waste in shrimp and crab processing. It is used in a number of industries, including textiles.
Chitin-blend fabrics are most often made of a blend of viscose and chitin. The Swiss-based company, Swicofil asserts that its chitin fabric CRABYON is safe and hypoallergenic for people with seafood sensitivities, which is important news for those with shellfish allergy. Chitosan typically makes up about 5 to 20-percent of final fabric blends. Chitin derivatives are also used in products such as contact lens, surgical stitches, and artificial skin.
Designers and engineers are working on more alternative fibers using food waste. For example, activated carbon derived from coconut husks can be blended into fabric with recycled polyester.
The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel is producing a silky textile for which patent is pending. The process involves putting starchy food waste high in sugar through a lactic acid fermentation with nano-zinc oxide as a catalyst, to create lactide, a type of biodegradable polyester—and finally acid melt spinning, where the plastic is melted and formed into thread. Edwin Keh, CEO of the Institute, has said that the process can recycle 10 tons of food waste into one ton of bio-fabric.
Sugar-cane bagasse, an abundant waste fibrous residue of sugarcane, is also used in the apparel industry and, can additionally be turned into paper. The extraction of bagasse fibers from sugarcane rind involves first mechanical separation, and then and chemical extraction with sodium hydroxide. The work-in-process is shot at very high pressure through tiny holes, solidified and spun into yarn, producing rayon fibers such as viscose, modal and lyocell.
A great many if not most of these textile inventions have cellulose at their raw material base. Technologically sophisticated methods of treating the cellulose for strength and durability have produced new fabric already in commerce, with more surely to come. Other waste-derived creations are on the horizon. For example, converting dried, treated inedible food components into accessories like buttons and buckles; and using methane gas produced by dairy cows to feed bacteria that produce biodegradable bio-polyester fibers.
It’s certain that food waste has huge environmental impacts and corresponding economic costs that need to be addressed. The above-mentioned innovations just might produce benefit in both areas, and to consumers as well.
Dr. Moyers has more than two decades of experience in developing, training, and auditing food safety, quality and dietary supplement management systems. She is an SQF-registered consultant and trainer, a lead trainer for FDA’s Preventive Controls and Foreign Supplier Program rules, and a consultant, auditor and trainer for dietary supplement current GMPs. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.