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Whether dog hair, banana leaves or seagrass, these new natural materials may be the materials of the future. Not only are they biodegradable and therefore sustainable, they are also highly functional and a surprise for the senses thanks to innovative technologies.

By Martina Metzner.

Neptune balls of seagrass are used for building insulation
Neptune balls of seagrass are now used as 100% natural building insulation. Photo: NeptuTherm.

For a long time, materials of the modern era such as concrete and plastics were considered the ultimate materials. These days they receive harsh criticism. They cannot degrade when they return to nature; there are heavy carbon emissions during production; they mostly require finite resources; they emit toxic substances and so much more. Put simply, their environmental footprint is problematic. The topic of resource conservation has achieved social prominence. Sustainable materials are now a must, and the expectations on them are rising. The raw materials and substances that we will use to shape the future need to be climate-neutral, biodiverse, degradable, compostable, recyclable, emission-free, not mixed with other substances and, most importantly, renewable and organic.

About 15 years ago there was a strong rise in organic cotton and then biocomposites made from recycled waste, whereas in recent years the most impressive development has been the variety of materials of completely organic origins. The advantage to them is that they are renewable and can be fed back into the biological cycle in full. With innovative enhancements as well as the passionate commitment of researchers, designers and start-up companies – usually all of a young age – these materials are making the jump from experimental status to the market. They are doing this successfully, too, with new natural materials finding almost unprecedented favour among consumers. Basically all makers want their projects to stop resource waste and minimise oil-based materials while using ecological cultivation methods, fair and climate-neutral production and short supply chains, and most people are aware of this. Moreover, the projects also pursue different goals for sustainability.

Building with fungi and seagrass

Fungi have been sold as a supermaterial for years; they do not demand intensive agricultural production or large tracts of land for cultivation. However, they have mainly been used at an experimentation level, which is now changing. The market now offers indoor acoustic-absorption solutions that are made of fungi, such as Myamo and Mogu Acoustics. They are based on mycelia, the networks of fine filaments within fungi. They have a matrix structure that becomes stable when dried slowly. The building engineering sector, on the other hand, will need to exercise patience for a while longer. There are promising experiments such as MycoTree at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, which involves a structure of fungus mycelium and bamboo from which load-bearing structures can be built using 3D models. Nevertheless, further study of the compressive and tensile strength is still required.

Fungus structures as a construction material
Tensile and bending strength are studied to use fungus structures as a construction material. Photo: Carlina Teteris.
Natural materials for the indoors: Sound absorption panels made of fungus mycelia
Sound absorption panels made of fungus mycelia are now market-ready. Photo: Katharina Querbach.

Nature provides its precious materials in generous volumes and NeptuTherm (website in German) takes advantage of that. This company from Karlsruhe has collected washed-up balls of seagrass from Mediterranean beaches, processed them and offered the result as insulation for roughly ten years now. The “Neptune balls” consist of leaves and rhizomes of the Posidonia plant, and they can be processed for construction without any additives while also achieving a B2 fire safety rating. In recent years, the demand for this insulation has spread from the green construction sector to the conventional construction sector as well. When it has reached the end of its useful life, NeptuTherm insulation can be composted without any worries. Unlike the similar-sounding promises of its many competitors, it really is made of 100% natural materials.

Supporting biodiversity in agriculture

Natural materials: Veneer from heirloom maize
When heirloom maize is used as a veneer, it looks aesthetically pleasing and supports biodiversity. Photo: Fernando Laposse.

If it were up to designers like Fernando Laposse, raw material cultivation would also help maintain biodiversity. For example, the designer developed Totomoxtle, a veneer made of the leaves of heirloom maize. In doing so, he draws attention to the way maize is grown: causing problems agriculturally as well as ecologically and politically. By concentrating on specially cultured hybrid maize enriched with fertilisers and herbicides, farmers in Mexico became dependent on seed manufacturers. Soil eroded dramatically. Traditional agricultural methods returned to use in Tonahuixtla in 2016 to grow six heirloom species of maize, the cultivation of which the indigenous population can live by.

Natural materials made from plant by-products and agricultural or production waste – such as banana leaves, coffee beans and even maize and rice – are very popular at the moment. They are being processed instead of sent to compost. The idea behind this is that everything that harvested minerals and crops and raised livestock can provide should be utilised. The abaca plant, for instance, is grown in the Philippines and has leaves that serve as a basis for a highly stable industrial yarn. Zurich-based company Qwstion has developed this yarn into a textile called Bananatex which is now used in backpacks and offered as an upholstery material. To make it, the extremely long and robust fibres of the leaves are made into paper and then spun into a yarn, which is coated with beeswax to make it waterproof.

Another exotic fruit has recently been on people’s lips as an alternative raw material: the fibres of pineapple leaves, which can replace the wood-based cellulose fibres used for paper. Fibres obtained from harvest waste are also used by Piñatex, which a few years ago developed an alternative leather from them. The alternative is now used by many vegan fashion labels. Apple pomace, birchbark, cactus fibre, kombucha, wine and even biological chitin from crustaceans serve as leather substitutes these days.

Qwstion uses the robust fibres forbackpacks
Qwstion uses the robust fibres of the Philippine abaca plant for its backpacks. Photo: Lauschsicht.
Paper from left-over pineapple leaves
The pineapple leaves left over from harvest can be used to make paper or a leather substitute. Photo: eco:fibr.

Composting or reusing waste

Sneature is made of dog hair and a fungus sole.
The Sneature, made of 3D-knitted dog hair and a fungus sole, is 100% compostable. Photo: Emilie Burfeind

There is also movement in the field of animal-based natural materials. Discarded wool is being used for insulation and carpet, silk fibres for trainers and chairs, and bacteria for organic dyes. Last but not least, human and animal excrement and hair are also being reused. After Sanne Visser manufactured wool from human hair in 2016, a design graduate from Offenbach am Main University of Art and Design has now successfully used animal hair for trainers. Emilie Burfeind has partnered with Berlin start-up Modus Intarsia for them, with the company collecting the undercoat from dogs and her processing it into a woollen yarn called “Chiengora”. Made through 3D knitting and featuring a sole made of fungus mycelia, the Sneature is fully compostable. It is an idea that C&A already had in 2018 with its fully compostable T-shirt. However, it is gaining steam again with new developments such as Burfeind’s as well as the Design to fade project by Puma and Living Colour.

Rediscovering traditional natural materials

Building with Building with natural materials: Buildings are constructed from compressed earth blocks.
Building with natural materials: An increasing number of buildings are being constructed from compressed earth blocks. Photo: Lehm Ton Erde, Emmanuel Dorsaz.

There are many who become excited by the prospect of traditional natural materials that disappeared through industrialisation and almost became forgotten. They come with more than just environmental qualities, as they also offer atmospheric benefits. British materials manufacturer Camira for example, makes use of stinging nettles for its textiles. Designers such as Stefan Diez and Uli Budde build bamboo and rattan furniture, while Büro Belén and Anastasiya Koshcheeva design their textiles and leather alternatives from bark. Similarly, wood is very much a preferred material for housing construction these days, though the focus on it is now also shifting to loam. One of the lighthouse projects is the new Alnatura Campus in Darmstadt, being developed by haascookzemmrich in cooperation with loam construction specialist Martin Rauch and energy expert Transsolar. It opened in 2018 and since then has received countless sustainability awards and even more attention. It is special because the walls of this multistorey building, featuring a large atrium, are made of a 70 cm thick layer of rammed earth. Cavity wall insulation made of foam glass cullet has been added to it. The loam technology is so sophisticated that the rooms inside can be heated and cooled using geothermal energy alone. Europe’s demand for rammed and compressed earth has grown so much that prefabricated compressed earth blocks have recently been manufactured and delivered to the market.

These materials of organic origin might well be the start of a wave of further developments that we will see in all industries in the coming years, in fashion, food, design, architecture and more. The conclusion to be drawn here is that if the last century was characterised by innovation with synthetic materials, the 21st century will be the century of smart as well as organic materials.

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