How Designers Are Turning Food Waste Into Stunning (And Sustainable) Fashion and Furniture

Image: Chip[s] Board Parblex Plastic Samples – Photo credit: Chip[s] Board

Fashion tech innovator, writer and public speaker Brooke Roberts-Islam investigates the pioneering designers utilising food waste to create stylish design, furniture and accessories.

As the pressure rises to tackle our global sustainability issues we are learning more about how food waste is contributing to climate change. The Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations reports that “Roughly one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost or wasted.” Not only is this a humanitarian and social crisis, but it is also an environmental one. When we waste food, we also waste all the energy and water used to grow, harvest, transport, and package it. If the food decomposes in landfill it produces methane, which contributes to global warming. 

Fortunately, there are some brilliant initiatives that we can all sign up to, like OLIO, that allow us to donate unwanted food locally, but what of the masses of food on an industrial scale that goes to waste, sometimes before even hitting supermarket shelves? This is where ingenuity and creativity offer some of the most inspiring and effective solutions, by way of fashion, furniture and interior designers committed to smart and sustainable design. 

Chip[s] Board was co-founded by Rowan Minkley and Rob Nicoll after they conducted a series of potato waste experiments while at Kingston University, aiming to create new sustainable materials. What began in a wheelbarrow in Minkley’s back yard has now developed into a materials business with a specially designed London-based lab. They have recently produced their first collection of materials ‘ParblexTM Plastics’, combining potato waste, pine flour, coffee grounds and other waste materials into recyclable and biodegradable ‘bioplastics’, which contain no toxic chemicals. Parblex is designed to be used for fashion and interior design and has already been used in Cubitts spectacle frames, furniture and clothing fastenings. 

Image: Chip[s]Board X Cubitts – Credit: Chip[s] Board

Mycelium materials have been emerging over the past few years, spurred on by a community of designers growing this mushroom-based material in their kitchens (from kits available online), then refining the process to industrial standards. One such designer is Adam Davies, founder of Ty Syml, who started out experimenting with the masses of unused (and naturally abundant and replenished) seaweed on his local beaches, shaping it into lampshades. He then moved on to mycelium, which he is developing for interiors and construction because of its hybrid nature that can absorb waste during the growing process.

The waste he uses to ‘feed’ the mycelium includes spent grains from the beer brewing process. Mycelium is unique in that it grows by taking in other materials (for example, the spent grains) and grows symbiotically with them, creating a naturally strong, biodegradable and compostable material that can be used for packaging, clothing, food (including plant-based ‘meat’) and construction. Mycelium, when harnessed as a technology, has the potential to provide alternatives to the plastics that are rapidly accumulating in the environment. The recent investment by Bolt Threads in developing Mylo is further evidence of its scalable commercial potential. 

Image: Ty Smyl Mycelium Lampshade – Photo credit: Adam Davies

Perhaps one of the most unexpected material developments in recent months, which is still in the development phase, has been Clemence Grouin Rigaux’s use of butcher offcuts to develop a resin-like material suitable for furniture and homewares. Although veganism has become mainstream, global meat consumption will continue for the foreseeable future, and it gives rise to millions of tonnes of bones and other byproducts that are currently underutilised. The byproducts often end up being incinerated, releasing dangerous gases and chemicals into the atmosphere. I applaud Grouin-Rigaux’s determination to take the kind of animal waste she says we “prefer to pretend does not exist” and treat it with a sealed and safe ‘extreme heat’ process to create a biodegradable, recyclable and compostable material.

What’s stopping us turning all food waste into new materials and products? It’s worth noting that when materials are developed from waste the results can be difficult to predict, and this means they can be viewed as ‘imperfect’. When making a material to be used in products certain standards have to be met, so not all waste is suitable for the quality of materials required. Chip[s] Board explained this to me in a recent interview about their potato waste process. They worked with McCain potato waste during their research and development phase and the materials they created varied greatly depending on the variety of potato, where it had been grown and several other factors. No wonder we have used synthetic industrial processes for years – the process behind these ‘virgin’ materials is far easier to control and predict. 

It’s time to ramp up our efforts to harness and work with nature, though. If necessity is the mother of invention we are in very exciting times, as designers utilise all manner of food waste, from citrus peel and pineapple leaves to potato skins and grapes from wine-making to create a new generation of materials with inherent beauty and sustainability.