Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Time For Tea... But As A Jacket?

The search is on for new, sustainable substitutes to the materials that we take for granted–but are incredibly greedy of resources and pollute the planet. From plants like nettle and hemp to more unusual replacements for leather made from pineapple or banana, there's a huge push to find the next big thing in renewable materials.

As an Englishman, I'm happy to report that the latest innovation to emerge in the field comes from a humble but vital source: tea. As The Swatch Book reports, two scientists, one based at Central St. Martin's College, the other at Iowa State, have both been busy with an approach that makes fabric from green tea cellulose fibres.

The initial product isn't promising: it's a sort of soupy, lumpy mash. No good for drinking, and certainly not wearable. Bacteria is added which over the course of several days creates a film of cellulose. This film is the important stuff. When dried and treated, it has the look and feel of leather.

There are significant advantages to this sort of product, above and beyond the potential cut in toxic chemicals that are part of the process used to tan leather. For one thing, it's completely biodegradable, opening up new paths to cradle-to-cradle production–that is, the ability to totally break down one garment and use its raw material to make another.

But it's early days, and there are issues with cellulose clothing that are yet to be properly addressed. For one thing, it's simply not as hard-wearing as leather. It's brittle at low temperatures, and vulnerable to air and moisture. Scaling up the process for mass production is also going to be a major challenge. Growing cellulose film is labour and time-intensive work. But the approach is getting positive notices and, more importantly, funding.

So, although it'll be a while before we can wear tea jackets or shoes, the future could be bright for cellulose clothing. Let's face it, it's no more wacky than some of the candidates for leather replacements we've seen in the past. Remember mushroom leather?

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