Carbon-Capturing Sunglasses Offer a View of Fashion’s Future

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leather is a Controversial content, and not just because cows have to die to produce it. or because tanning leather requires toxic chemicals such as chromium, which sometimes thrown directly into the local waterway. No, according to environmental activists, the worst thing about leather is that it is a major contributor to climate change.

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Animal agriculture is estimated to be responsible for 14.5 percent About the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Kering, the luxury fashion conglomerate that owns leather-loving brands such as Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, said in its 2020 Environment Report that the production and processing of leather is by far the largest contributor to its carbon footprint. And when the Amazon was on fire in 2019, Blaise was convicted at least partly on animal husbandry operations, and Many big brands swear by it, including H&M and Timberland To stop sourcing leather from the region.

The options available to the fashion industry, however—fossil-fuel-based polyurethane and PVC—leave something to be desired. All Buzzy plant-based vegan leathers, whose manufacturers claim to emit fewer greenhouse gases during production, are also mixed with synthetic petroleum products, making them more harmful than their “cruelty-free” marketing . With all the press surrounding Adidas and Stella McCartney’s prototype products, you’d be forgiven for thinking you could already buy a lab-grown leather wallet or mushroom leather Stan Smith sneakers, but those materials Still struggling towards commercial viability.

For now, there is only one truly innovative and eco-friendly vegan “leather” that you can click through to buy straight from the Internet. AirCarbon, a carbon-negative material made using methane-munching sea creatures, hit the market a year ago in the form of sunglasses, purses and laptop and phone sleeves.

In an industry known for being the most prevalent product drops (another recycled water bottle jacket, anyone?), the reception for the new brand, cooperaterIt was surprisingly silent. It can probably be credited to Mark Herrema of Newlight Technologies, the CEO of the startup that made Aircarbon, who brought the best of California’s vibes to our interview. When I noticed his way of relaxing, he laughed and said that he’s been working on this material for a full 18 years. And anyway, with six rounds of funding under his belt, the latest for $45 million, he’s past the hype phase and into the “just do it” phase.

Literally: In August, NewLight announced a partnership with Nike to explore the uses of AirCarbon. nike, which says 70 percent of its emissions are wrapped up in its materials, making it one of many big fashion brands to have Committed To reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030.

Herema said the idea would eventually lead to AirCarbon when he was at Princeton in the early 2000s. He was studying politics, but some digestive problems prompted him to begin research on diet and the food system. he found that a cow can burp up to 500 liters Methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas, is released into the atmosphere every day. He envisioned the market value of that methane—more than $20,000 per year from a large farm—evaporating into the air, and saw a business opportunity.

As it turns out, a hundred years ago, scientists discovered that there are organisms that eat greenhouse gases and store that energy inside their cells in the form of a molecule called polyhydroxybutyrate, or PHB. “And this molecule, when you take it apart, turns out it’s meltable,” Herrema says. That means it can be molded into all kinds of materials in any color, from sheets like leather to fibers and solid shapes like sunglasses.

Yes, PHB is bakelite. But a biodegradable and completely non-toxic plastic that is made from living organisms rather than fossil fuels.

Herema persuaded his friend Kenton Kimmel, who was studying bioengineering at Northwestern, to found NewLight Technologies with him in 2003. It took them ten years to locate the technology in an Orange County, California car garage and another seven years to raise the money. To build a manufacturing plant to produce carbon-negative polymers on a large scale.

The raw aircarbon material shown is melted and molded into various products.

Photograph: Newlight Technologies

The Huntington Beach, California factory, which opened in September 2020, features giant stainless steel tanks filled with salt water and a mix of microorganisms called methanotrophs. Methane gas is mixed with water, and organisms eat it to produce PHB, which is then harvested, purified, and refined into a white powder: aircarbon. “We are mimicking a process that happens every day in nature,” Herema says. That powder can then be mixed and melted into a variety of products, including biodegradable forks and eco-friendly resins for eyewear.

Newlight Technologies isn’t the only company that has turned greenhouse gas-eating organisms into tiny polymer-making machines. San Francisco common material Waste methane from sewage treatment plants creates a variety of biodegradable polymers, including textiles. “There are many companies in this field, which I think is the most exciting aspect,” says Lisa Y. Stein, a microbial physiology researcher at the University of Alberta. “It shows that this is indeed a viable technology for reducing greenhouse gases.”

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However, Newlite is not only selling polymers to manufacturers, but making final consumer products from it. In addition to Covalent’s fashion products, Newlite also sells biodegradable straws and cutlery under the brand name restore foods.

Each covalent product is embossed with a time and date stamp that corresponds to the moment its ingredients were created by microorganisms. The code feeds into a blockchain-backed ledger that details all stages of the manufacturing process between stainless steel vats and it reaches your doorstep.

When I inputted the “carbon date” engraved on a pair of Covalent sunglasses into the Covalent website, it told me that a third-party authenticator had confirmed that the glasses contained 2.03 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent gases (CO2e). was captured, even the emissions were involved. Its global journey. PHB was harvested in California near midnight on September 7, 2019, purified and dried to a white powder on September 8, combined with natural and synthetic materials to form a resin on September 17, and a Turned into sunglasses in Italian factory. before being sent back to the states on December 25. It was sent to my apartment about two years later. The sunglasses, sold for $150, are matte black, flexible, lightweight, and strong. The leather material in the Covalent iPhone sleeve, matte black and open, looks expensive (though not exactly like leather). My husband, an architect who spends his days designing the charming interiors of modern vacation homes and boutique hotels, practically snatched sunglasses from my hands when I unpacked them.

One of Covalent’s AirCarbon laptop sleeves.

Photograph: Newlight Technologies

Unlike the straws and cutlery NewLight Shake Shake is making available and selling in Target stores, the Aircarbon Fashion material is not biodegradable or FDA-certified non-toxic. (Although there is no evidence that these materials have added worrying substances.) Sunglass resin is 78 percent PHB, while the leather material is 51 percent PHB, the rest being natural and synthetic rubber, pigments, and processing aids. The company is working on sourcing a biodegradable alternative to synthetic rubber, but for now its main focus is carbon capture. Ultimately, the team wants to create a take-back and recycling program for covalent products – and track its climate impact as well. But like all polymers, aircarbon loses some quality each time it is reprocessed, so it can only be done a few times before it too ends up in landfills and releases its methane back into the environment. .

For these reasons, Stein says, a carbon-negative fashion will be only a small part of the fight to stop runaway greenhouse gas emissions. Even though Herema was inspired by cows belching, you can’t capture easily to be released collectively from bovine burps, or methane melting permafrost. You need a point source such as a wastewater treatment plant or landfill.

Just as you might pay for wind power from your local electricity provider, even if the electrons themselves are from the nearest coal plant, NewLight pays for methane to be captured from abandoned coal mines and put into the natural gas grid, while sourcing its own methane from a local natural gas provider. “Going forward, we plan to source methane and carbon dioxide from farms, landfills, food waste digesters, abandoned coal mines, ethanol plants and direct air capture plants,” Herrema said by email.

But getting the material from microorganisms instead of petroleum represents a win in the end, Stein says, “even if it doesn’t necessarily make a big dent in the overall methane budget.”

One thing is for sure, the masses are tired of feeling guilty for every accessory they buy.

“I think people really care about more sustainable products,” Herrema says. “The challenge is matching the care or demand for more sustainable products with real alternatives.” In the fashion industry…

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