Tons of clothes are thrown in the bin once they’ve been worn out. As most contain some sort of synthetic material, they cannot easily be recycled or burned – even faux leather is generally made from plastic. In the UK, an estimated 350,000 tonnes of clothing go to landfills every year.
Natural materials, like cotton and wool, break down much faster than plastic, usually in less than a year. Plants and algae now offer an even eco-friendlier solution to the fashion industry’s giant waste problem. Adventure-clothing brand Vollebak has created a t-shirt from pulped eucalyptus, beech and spruce that will fully decompose within three months.
Rather than using the traditionally synthetic inks, the company created a printable ink from algae to decorate the t-shirt with a large green rectangle on the front. Algae only needs light, carbon dioxide and water to grow – and it grows at record speed, with the ability to cause algal blooms in lakes and the ocean within a day. “It’s exactly the kind of natural resource that we should be using. There’s an astonishing amount of it, and it can multiply at a crazy speed,” says Steve Tidball, who founded Vollebak with his twin brother.
The algae is grown in a bioreactor and passed through a filter, which leave a soupy paste that is dried to create a fine powder. Mixing the dried powder with a water-based binder produces the final product: a green algae ink, which is printed onto the fabric made from wood pulp.
Since it can’t survive outside water, the algae on the t-shirt is no longer alive. Its natural pigment is more sensitive than in chemical dyes, meaning that the algae might be a different shade of green everytime it is printed onto a t-shirt. In some cases, the ink might look more blue.
“As soon as it comes into contact with air it starts to oxidise, which means the algae will begin to change colour again and your t-shirt will look different from one week to the next as it fades,” says Tidball, adding this should be seen as something positive as it will make every t-shirt unique.
Eventually, as the t-shirt is exposed to sunlight and put through the washing machine, the print’s colour will become the same as the t-shirt itself. A hand-wash in cold water with as little detergent as possible will slow the fading and make the ink last for longer.
At the end of the t-shirt’s life, all you need to remember is to compost it – or bury it in your garden. “Here it will biodegrade, turn into soil, and help new plants to grow,” says Tidball.
Vollebak – the clothing company behind the Black Squid Jacket that reflects every colour in the visible spectrum – isn’t the first company to use algae for fashion. In March, H&M launched a sustainable fashion line with shoe soles made from algae by BLOOM Foam.
With its Plant and Algae T Shirt – which is available to purchase from next week (£85) – Vollebak wanted to create a piece of clothing that is made entirely out of natural materials, and hence, fully biodegradable. “That’s why it’s designed so that you can bury it in your garden,” says Tidball. “Sustainability is a lot easier to understand when it involves feeding your old t-shirt to worms.” The company is now exploring other products that could be made in a closed-loop system.
The five-year-old startup is known for using cutting-edge materials to produce clothing – from a jacket built with graphene that can conduct power and store body heat to an “indestructible” hoodie with ceramic armour plating. Using natural materials like wood pulp and algae can be just as cutting-edge, says Tidball, adding that the aquatic organism potentially holds the key to creating sustainable fuel, food and even oxygen needed for interplanetary travel. “So we wanted to start the journey of getting algae into clothing,” he says.
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