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Alternative Realities

Materials grown from bacteria or mined from landfill could soon be a new mainstream reality. Seetal Solanki explores the innovative new materials being developed in labs and studios worldwide.

Harmful To Helpful

Lupin is a plant that was introduced to Iceland as a foreign species from North America in 1945. Since then it has been invading the Icelandic landscape. It flourishes so intensely that it’s suffocating the surrounding native flora and fauna at a rapid rate. However, rather than demonise this overzealous plant, students from the Iceland Academy of the Arts in Reykjavik, Elín Harðardóttir and Inga Guðlaugsdóttir have been using lupin to create a fibreboard that is self-binding, chemical-free and biodegradable. This new material could be used to create sustainable furniture in the future as an alternative solution for MDF which uses synthetic glues to bind the wood fibres together. The latest flat pack bookcase made out of lupin could be coming to an IKEA near you soon.

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Colour Grown From Life

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According to environmental news agency EcoWatch, the textiles and clothing industry is the world’s second-largest polluter, coming up closely behind the oil industry. From the chemicals sprayed on textile crops to toxic dyes leaching into waterways, fumes from burned dead stock and the extravagant amount of natural resources used in extraction, farming, harvesting, processing, manufacturing and shipping—fashion’s environmental impact is massive.

In order to find an alternative to this destructive production chain, Natsai Audrey Chieza of Faber Futures has looked to the convergence of biology, technology and design in order to create textiles that are dyed using bacteria instead of chemical fixatives.

To do this, Chieza impregnates silk with a small amount of Streptomyces coelicolor—a pigment- producing bacteria. After approximately 34 days of incubation, vivid pinks, blues, greens and yellows form organic abstract shapes on the delicate silk scarves. Imperfections in the pig- mentation are the result of rogue bits of fungus mixing with the bacteria. As the bacteria is a living pigment little to no water is required in the application process. This is revolutionary as, by contrast, chemical dyeing techniques require and ultimately pollute significant quantities of water having serious ecological implications.

Changing States: From Soft To Solid

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Design studio Really is obsessed with waste. Like many designers and campaigners in the sustainable movement, they see waste as a resource that can help us move to a better model of circularity. In their work, they take soft waste fibres such as cotton from Danish industrial steam laundries, fabric recycling plants in Italy and leftover wool from textile manufacturer Kvadrat. Once collected all of the fibres are broken down and pressed into a hardboard material that can be used to create furniture and products. As the manu-facturing process Really use to make their Solid Textile Board involves established technology and the raw materials that are widely available, so it could be successfully replicated in a multitude of international locations. The work of Really shows how a simple intervention can challenge designers and manufacturers to rethink their use of resources.

Landfills Are Goldmines

 According to data from digital analysts at GSMA Intelligence there are now more mobile phones than there are people on this planet. Approximately only 13% of electronic waste generated around the world is recycled on an annual basis. Within the rest of that non-recycled electronic waste lay large quantities of precious metals such as gold, silver, copper and platinum.

Through their work, Formafantasma scavenge gold from discarded electronic items and use it to create surface finishes on various objects and products. They draw attention to the vast amounts of digital waste and obsolete electronics, as well as the valuable materials used in them such as gold in computer circuit boards and palladium in hard drives and mobile phones. Through their projects, Formafantasma reference a future world in which natural metal reserves have been exhausted and where scavenging for metals and precious minerals in our man-made world will overtake conventional mining. It forces us to take a more responsible approach to electronic product design with the end-of-life disposal at the forefront of the design process.

Changing States: From Liquid To Solid

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With coconut water becoming the hangover cure of choice, sales of coconut products have surged over 500% in the last decade. Although some of the coconut is used and bottled, much is still wasted. To address this waste, Malai, a studio based on a coconut farming facility in South India is creating a leather-like material made entirely from the bacteria naturally derived from coconut waste that could replace leather goods made from animal skins.

During the process, the bacteria that naturally occurs in coconut water are placed in a humid environment. Left over 14–21 days the mixture ferments and a layer of cellulose grows, eventually turning into a jelly-like substance at the end of the period. The longer it is left, the thicker the material becomes eventually developing into a leather-like material. Malai’s product not only offers a potential solution to the coconut waste problem but also represents a responsible alternative to animal- based leathers as the bacterial cellulose material is totally biodegradable, water resistant and vegan.