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A Zero-Waste Fiber Is Brewing

Kombucha tea is the source of a new fiber aimed at creating sustainable fashion.

A new fiber made from tea is being developed as part of the fight to decrease waste and pollution in the fashion industry. An article published by Iowa State University details a new cellulosic fiber that’s a byproduct of Kombucha tea and is being grown in a lab by Young-A Lee and her research team. The cellulose fibers grow as a gel-like film that feeds off a mixture of vinegar and sugar. Once harvested and dried, the material is similar to leather, and can be made into clothing, handbags, and shoes.

Lee, an associate professor of apparel, merchandising, and design at Iowa State, received funding from the Environmental Protection Agency to develop sustainable clothing and shoes from the new fiber. The global environmental impact of fashion manufacturing is far-reaching. Non-biodegradable clothing ends up in landfills, use of nonrenewable materials depletes natural resources, and chemicals used to manufacture and dye synthetic fabrics contaminate water and soil. One fact recently published by Forbes starkly illustrates the devastating environmental impact of manufacturing and, inevitably, disposing of synthetic fabrics:

Nearly 70 million barrels of oil are used each year to make the world’s polyester fiber, which is now the most commonly used fiber in our clothing. But it takes more than 200 years to decompose.

Lee’s new cellulosic fabric is not only 100% biodegradable, it represents the possibility of a “cradle-to-cradle” design cycle of continuous reuse and regeneration. The material is grown in the lab using a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY), and when discarded, it goes back to the soil as a nutrient. It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast to the fashion industry’s current reliance on synthetics!

There are definitely issues to work out in developing this novel fiber before it will be ready for mass production and marketable to consumers. Lee’s team is working on shortening its growth cycle as the material currently takes 3-4 weeks to grow in the lab. Tests of clothing made of the fiber show that moisture makes it less durable, while cold makes it brittle. A survey of college students about a new cellulosic fiber vest revealed concerns about the color, texture, comfort, durability, and ease of care of the material. Lee is confident that these concerns can be addressed through the development process to ultimately produce a fiber that works for fashion companies and consumers while providing the universal benefit of contributing to sustainable fashion.

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June 30 2016 0

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