Actress Emma Watson recently caused a stir when she wore a dress made from recycled soda bottles on the red carpet, but would she be ready to wear clothing made from food waste? Some fashion designers certainly hope so.
The idea is part of the sustainable and eco-friendly initiative to curb clothing from piling up in landfills. But finding the right food waste material to create biodegradable clothing is not easy.
Enter Young-A Lee, an associate professor of apparel, merchandising and design at Iowa State University, who has created clothes, shoes, and bags out of the waste from kombucha tea.
Kombucha tea is an effervescent fermented drink credited with health benefits that appeal to both hippies and hipsters. It is created using a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, or SCOBY for short. Each batch of kombucha produces a SCOBY, which is a gel-like film of cellulose fibers. Once the brewing process is complete, it is often discarded.
Lee was intrigued by the SCOBY byproduct because, when dried, its texture and malleability is similar to leather. Because the fiber can actually decompose quickly, unlike organic cotton or other eco-friendly fabric counterparts, the benefit is that fashions made from it can eventually be used as nutrients for plants or soil. Yet the downside is its short shelf life, which is fine for the trendy fashionista, but not necessarily for the general consumer. Lee says that the life cycle of the SCOBY clothing is still undetermined and acknowledges that normal wear and tear will cause these items to break down.
“We’re looking at ways to enhance the fiber,” says Lee. “It’s very sensitive to weather conditions because it tries to absorb water from the environment. We’re trying to reduce the water absorbency and increase the strength of the material so that it is similar to leather to make it more viable to the market.”
Thanks to a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency P3-People, Prosperity and the Planet Program, Lee and her research team have been able to work on this material. So far, they have created a series of prototypes that include a vest, men’s and women’s dress shoes and a handbag. Next up? A pair of baby booties—perfect for gifting to those eco-conscious new moms.
So far, Lee has used SCOBYs grown within her lab along with additional SCOBYs purchased online. Yet, in order to expand the scope of the project, Lee acknowledges that growing the SCOBYs in-house or buying them won’t create a sustainable cycle, which is why she’s currently reaching out to kombucha tea companies in order to harvest their byproduct.
“Because the tea company only uses the liquid when they brew,” says Lee. “They don’t have a use for the leftover byproduct and are just throwing it away, so we want to start collecting those.”
Lee is not the only one trying to give food waste another life. There are others attempting to turn food waste fashion into an up and coming trend, such as Philippines-based Ananas Anam, which is turning pineapple leaf fibers into an alternative leather, an Italian startup turning citrus byproducts into sustainable yarn, and Singtex, a Taiwanese company recycling used coffee grounds into an odor-controlling green fiber. Other alternative fibers include mushroom fibers, which decompose faster than some of the other choices and can be used as insulation, and sugar-cane bagasse, the fibrous byproduct after stalks are crushed for juice, which is being repurposed into paper.
Lee’s team is also exploring the use of other types of food waste as natural dyes for the tea byproduct clothing, because without dye, it’s naturally beige. So far, they’ve created a variety of earthy tones using spent coffee grounds (gathered from the university cafeteria) as well as red and yellow onion skins.
But is the future of fashion going to embrace food waste fibers? Lee believes that there’s more to that question than just the style of the finished product.
“I think that there is a major hurdle we’ll have to overcome,” she says. “And that’s whether the consumer’s going to buy these alternative fabrics. How long does it take to make it marketable? That’s a critical component that we have to consider.”
Lee compares the alternative fiber market to the technology sector, noting that consumers drive the need for constant innovation within computer and smartphone technology. She doesn’t feel that, at least for now, the same push is within the fashion industry for the byproduct option.
“It’s time to shift the individual mindset,” says Lee. “The key part is to be the change agent. It’s not a trend. It’s the new norm in a continuous race for sustainability that’s going to be buying our product.”
Kristen A. Schmitt is a writer, editor and photographer covering wildlife, sustainable agriculture, the outdoors, and environmental issues. Check out her website.