Kombucha, Pineapples, and the Next Generation of Vegan Leather
Chances are fairly high that you've heard of, or even worn, pleather. It's an alternative to real leather, but what many may not realize is the detrimental impact it has when it comes to the environment. Pleather, with its varying qualities, has relied on polyurethane in place of animal skin. However, an increasing number of product designers and material scientists are proving that we can do better by growing new material with biology and agricultural waste to create a circular economy.
Vegan leather grew into a $93 billion industry due to its promise to rid the world of using animal skins for leather. Unfortunately, pleather, the most widely used of the vegan leathers, is made of plastic. Thankfully, an increasing number of product designers and material scientists are proving that we can do better growing new material with biology and agricultural waste.
One start-up working on the dream of plastic-free vegan leather is Kombucha Biomaterials based in Charlottesville, VA.
In case you missed the growing kombucha craze, it is a living health drink made by fermenting tea and sugar with a Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast (SCOBY). While traditional kombucha brewers discard the SCOBY as trash, Kombucha Biomaterials is specifically harvesting the SCOBY to create a variety of products—from rolling papers to leather.
The kombucha SCOBY is actually a biofilm made from nano-crystalline cellulose, and is a valuable by-product. Normally, kombucha grows using only tea leaves and white sugar, but it could also be trained to live off of agricultural waste instead. Shaun Moshasha, co-founder of Kombucha Biomaterials says, “Kombucha is a robust and adaptable super-organism that can feed off multiple nutrient inputs.”
“We are coming out of the industrial age which was clunky, onerous, and inefficient and entering the bio-manufacturing age, which is both more efficient and cleaner for the environment. At Kombucha Biomaterials we are leveraging kombucha’s true potential as a precise biomaterial factory,” says Shaun. Beyond just using the SCOBY for cellulose, biochemists like Shaun can genetically modify the bacteria to create polymers and proteins that can improve their products. For example, he can use nature's toolbox to mimic some of the more desirable properties of plastics and chemicals, such as their waterproof nature, while remaining biocompatible.
Zuzana & Susmith (founders of Malai materials) in their Kerala lab preparing for an experiment
Compare that to natural leathers. About 95% of the world’s tanneries use hexavalent chromium. All too often, this known carcinogen is then dumped into local waterways where it will be consumed and used to irrigate crops, causing long term health issues for both people and the habitat. Polyurethane leather is no better. Products made from PU won’t biodegrade, can’t be recycled, and add to our growing micro-plastic pollution. Kombucha leather can save waterways in more ways than one. It requires no pesticides, no fertilizer, nor much added water. It can be grown without the need for light or soil. In fact, you can grow it vertically in multi-story buildings all year round, which creates far greater efficiencies than other harvested fibre or animal hide.
“The use of leather for fashion has a massive environmental impact. Massive. From unnecessary water consumption to high emissions of greenhouse gases and polluting chemicals. For me it’s really about questioning the process,” says Stella McCartney. BOLT Threads is set to release a bag made with Mylo, a material grown from mycelium and corn stalks. Mycelium is the underground root-structure of mushrooms that acts like a biological glue, holding soil and organic matter together. For us, above ground consumers, mycelium acts the same, holding together agricultural waste for commercial products. By pressing layers of mycelium sheets together, then treating it and dyeing it, BOLT Threads is able to create an animal-free leather alternative.
Malai in different textures and colours achieved by using natural dyes
Can we make a skin-free, plastic-free leather with waste coconut water (apparently not all coconut water is tasty), waste banana fibre, and bacteria? We can! After 150 different formulations, Zuzana Gombosova and Susmith Suseelan, co-founders of the start-up, Malai, created an eco-friendly material that uses ingredients discarded from factories and farms. Once the coconut water is sterilized the special bacterial culture is added to ferment for 12-14 days. The resulting bacterial cellulose is then harvested and refined with natural fibres, gums, and resins to create a durable and flexible material for designers without the use of plastics or synthetic ingredients. “We procure natural fibres from banana farmers, who otherwise discard the stems after the fruit is harvested,” says Susmith. ‘Discard’ almost seems like a euphemism when more than 212 million tonnes of banana waste is left to rot annually; the resulting methane acting as a major contributor to climate change.
Another company, Ananas Anam, creator of Piñatex, spent 7 years of R&D into the waste of another tropical fruit: pineapple. Ananas Anam developed the first automated decortifcation machine to remove the long fibres from the pineapple leaves, while the rest of the biomass is used for fertilizer or biofuel on the farms from which the pineapples are grown. The fibres are shipped to Spain and finished with PLA, a plant-based biodegradable plastic for durability.
Malai material samples in different colours
Companies like these, and more, are diverting agricultural waste into added-value leather products to support the circular economy—and the world can’t wait to get their hands on them. Designers like Debra Denniston, co-founder of Los Angeles vegan bag company HFS Collective, agree that material manufacturers aren’t ready to meet the demand that exists for products like these. Debra says people are responding really well to their Piñatex collection, “and seem to be truly fascinated by innovative new materials...I love telling people about [Piñatex] and watching their expressions change from interest to awe.”
We at Pollima are exhibiting innovative materials like these, made from waste, and the designers that use them. Our mission is to connect material manufacturers with designers and investors to help manufacturers scale and boost consumer demand to an unavoidable level. Change begins with questioning and discussing around moments like the Pollima Material Revolution.
We ask you to support innovation by demanding transparency. Ask two questions when you purchase something: "Where did this come from?" and "Where is this going when I'm done with it?"