Could seaweed save us?
Could seaweed save us? How SeaCell fibers (made from kelp) could be the next cotton alternative
Traditionally the only clothing materials harvested from the sea were made from animals – whalebone for corsets, sealskin worn by inuits, and sea silk from clams.
Now in the 21st century an animal-free fiber is finally making its way onto land…
Due to newly developed technology, a totally sustainable semi-synthetic fiber made from quick-growing kelp (seaweed) and wood pulp has arrived, offering a low impact alternative to cotton.
Cotton has long been the fashion industry’s favorite natural fiber, followed by wool, but that could soon be set to change – with the latest processed cellulosic fiber offering all the benefits of a natural fiber.
As consumers wake up to the environmental toll that conventional cotton farming’s heavy pesticides are taking on the developing world, the SeaCell fiber may just be the cotton alternative we all need.
SeaCell – named after its components, Seaweed and cellulose – is an innovative and eco-friendly fiber produced from parts of the brown kelp seaweed (Ascophyllum nodosum) and sustainable wood, in a Lyocell process created and patented by Smartfiber AG.
Unlike most conventional materials, no chemicals are created as waste in the production of SeaCell and the material is 100% biodegradable.
The harvesting of the kelp – which makes up around 5% of the total fabric – is done every four years and is so gentle on the plant that the pruning actually promotes the seaweed to grow more. Only the top part of the plant that quickly regenerates is harvested.
How is SeaCell made?
Creating SeaCell is a semi-synthetic fiber manufactured in a ‘closed loop’ process, this means that every bit of waste created in the production is reused.
The process begins with wood from sustainable trees (usually eucalyptus, birch or oak) being chemically dissolved in a vat with a solvent until all that is left is the sticky cellulose liquid – which makes up 75% of the final material.
After being harvested from locations where it grows naturally, including the fjords of Iceland, the seaweed is dried, crushed and then grinded down.
It is added to the wood pulp’s cellulose during the liquid stage. This mixture is then spun into a fiber, Smartfiber AG reveals.
By ‘embedding’ the seaweed into a cellulose fiber the material maintains the qualities of the natural seaweed fiber, producing a smooth and silky texture.
The plant-based chemical structure of the breathable material is claimed to be as soft as human skin, it is hypoallergenic and does not cling to the body.
Because the fabric is so breathable it does not need to be washed as regularly as most clothing, especially sweat inducing polyester.
Not only is the SeaCell material entirely environmentally sound but it also offers health benefits to the wearer – that’s right your seaweed t-shirt can keep your body nourished!
Vitamins, trace elements, amino acids and minerals all naturally contained within the seaweed can be transferred through the skin’s natural moisture into the wearer’s body.
The makers of the ‘smart fabric’ even claim that wearers will be left with a lasting feel-good effect after soaking up the material’s beneficial substances.
It is also claimed that the beneficial properties of SeaCell can prevent aggravation of skin conditions and even help to reduce skin inflammation.
SeaCell has been developed by Smartfiber AG over the past decade using just sustainable raw materials.
Eucalyptus trees are usually used because they are fast growing, don’t require pesticides, and don’t need much water.
The fabric is manufactured at Smartfiber AG’s production facility in Austria, where they also create a Lyocell fiber with added Zinc for its health benefits.
So will it replace cotton?
The two materials are indistinguishable to the touch by some, with both offering breathable comfort.
But can SeaCell really step into the shoes of cotton and fill the world’s insatiable demand for fiber?
Cotton is a $38.54 billion business, with 29 billion kilograms of cotton is produced every year, the equivalent of 29 t-shirts per person.
An estimated 99% of the world’s cotton farmers have turned to artificial pesticides and fertilizers to keep up with the demand for the notoriously low yielding crop.
This means that although cotton crops cover 2.4% of the world’s cultivated land, they use a massively disproportionate 16% of the world’s insecticides and 6% of its pesticides.
The chemicals sprayed onto the crops are extremely toxic, with just a single drop of the pesticide Aldicarb able to kill an adult if it touches the skin, the Environmental Justice Foundation reports.
In addition to this the chemically treated cotton crops, 99% of which are grown in developing countries, are a major water guzzler and drink up a staggering 3% of the world’s freshwater supply.
Thankfully more and more people are making the sustainable switch to organic cotton, which requires 91% less water than conventional cotton.
Whilst organic cotton uses 63% less produced energy and releases 46% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional cotton it still relies on the use of agricultural land.
At its current rate, the fashion industry is predicted to take up 35% more land (115 million hectares) to grow fibers by 2030.
The more land that is converted to grow monocrops for fibers such as conventional cotton (non-organic) the less land and water there is available to grow food for the growing populations in those developing countries.
Because SeaCell uses wood pulp from sustainably managed forests and harvests the quick regenerating seaweed from an existing ecosystem the negative effects of flattening land for agriculture are avoided.
However there is little evidence to show whether these ecosystems could cope if SeaCell was scaled up to meet the demands of cotton as a replacement.
SeaCell is made from wood pulp in a similar way to Tencel, a material made from Lyocell fibers that has become an increasingly popular alternative to nylon.
As Tencel has grown in popularity it has remained sustainable, using wood from FSC approved forests.
This offers hope for the scaling of SeaCell’s demand for wood pulp, however it does not illustrate how the sustainable harvesting of seaweed would scale up.