Researchers at Iowa State University have truly made a breakthrough by designing a new, leather-like biodegradable material from tea byproducts, of all things.
The new material could be used to make clothing, shoes, or handbags — basically anything that leather is currently used for. When you consider that the average consumer is likely wearing four leather products at any given time, it is not hard to imagine a market for the new product.
The tough leather-like product is grown using a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, which develops into a gel-like substance consisting of cellulose fibers (a byproduct of the popular beverage kombucha tea). The final effect is achieved when the gel is harvested and dried.
So far, the material has been tested for cosmetics, foods, and bio-medical tissue in wound dressing but has yet to be tested for use in the apparel industry.
The fiber is totally biodegradable, making it particularly enticing for the fashion world, which generates tons of waste.
Young-A Lee, an associate professor at Iowa State University, said, “Fashion companies keep producing materials and clothing, from season to season, year to year, to fulfill consumers’ desire and needs. Think about where these items eventually go. They will take tremendous underground spaces of the Earth like other trash.”
Lee envisions a truly sustainable fabric, thereby lessening the industry’s dependence on non-renewable materials.
Still, the tea cloth poses several challenges. Tests have shown that the moisture absorption from the air and person wearing it are particularly high, making the material less durable. Mass production may also be a problem — the material takes around three to four weeks to grow in the lab.
However, the researchers continue to persevere, with the hope for a more sustainable future lighting their way.