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The possibilities of human waste in textile production

By Rachel Douglass

7 Apr 2022

Fairs

Image: Human Material Loop

In the pursuit of discovering more sustainable alternatives for textile production, innovators have stumbled upon many creative ways to tackle the issue - some of which are somewhat surprising.

Human waste was a common topic among exhibitors at MaterialDistrict, which returned to Utrecht after a two-year, pandemic-induced hiatus, spanning three days from April 5 to 7. Among the stands of elaborate producers and established companies, a selection of innovators presented their concepts, many of which were still in the development stage, with a particular focus on human-produced waste - something that already exists and doesn’t require new materials.

Often, when not elaborated on, many turn their noses up at the thought of implementing human waste into the product production process, as some can sound unconventional, strangely unnatural or simply unsettling. However, once expanded on, human waste can actually be a valid alternative to new textile production as it can often be easy to obtain and can come with a series of benefits that don’t require much else to work.

Image: Human Material Loop

“Trash is just raw material in the wrong place…”

A particularly surprising innovation was the use of human hair in the production of clothing, a concept developed by Zsofia Kollar, the founder of the Human Material Loop. In a presentation at the event, Kollar explained the dire need of eco-friendly material, asking why the world often steered clear of waste options that already existed. Kollar’s solution was human hair. Through the Human Material Loop, Kollar has integrated hair into a closed-loop recycling system, allowing for it to essentially become a yarn that can be used to manufacture clothing. The idea will put to use the 72 million kilograms of hair that goes to waste a year in Europe alone.

“The solution is at the top of our heads,” Kollar said in her presentation. “Trash is just raw material in the wrong place.” The innovator said she had asked herself why we weren’t already using a material like hair, which was already such a prominent part of our lives and also holds the same keratin fibre as wool. She further noted that the product is 100 percent biodegradable, has a carbon footprint close to zero and no animals or humans can be harmed in the process of acquiring it.

The moderator of the event, David Heldt, co-founder of Glue Amsterdam, stated his concern and potential hesitancy with the idea, however, Kollar, remaining unphased, replied: “We are so distanced from the materials we are already using today. For example, if you look at your wool sweater, did you think about how that sheep was living, how it was tortured, how much blood was spilled to produce that fluffy sweater. Isn't it strange that we just forget that?”

Following the presentation, when asked by FashionUnited if she is regularly challenged about the legitimacy of hair use in production, Kollar said: “Definitely. There is a convincing phase where people need to know a little bit about the background of the problems of the textile industry. Once they know these facts they are pretty much convinced. They just need some time to digest. My work is very much about changing perspectives and challenging the perceptions of the norms.”

While the concept is still in the early start-up phase, Kollar did say that she is currently in talks with various high-end brands on potentially bringing the material to a commercial level. “We want to convince the high end brands to show a different perspective first so it will be easier to convince the average consumer later,” said Kollar. “People need to see that we are not above but equal to the ecosystem.”

Image: Human Material Loop at MaterialDistrict Utrecht, photo by FashionUnited

Products from the Human Material Loop are currently manufactured in Italy, however, Kollar told FashionUnited she has plans to make the process available in every country to ensure local production. “We just want to be able to reach as many people as we can.”

Human bodies as breeding grounds for nature

A similar approach to human waste was taken by Dutch innovator Michelle Baggerman who works in collaboration with material designer Jessica den Hartog, as part of Studio Bureau Baggerman. The duo presented Project Chrysalis, the studio’s idea of turning plastic waste into yarn and, while only currently considered as a product for interior purposes, Baggerman’s idea is a one that still adds an important element to alternative textile production.

While the use of PET is already quite prominent in recycling processes, HDPE is something that is seen less often, which is what prompted Baggerman to look into its use. Now in the early stages of development and currently looking for partners to take it further, Baggerman said to FashionUnited: “We are just focused on the material right now - what kind of quality it is and if we can make it on a bigger scale.”

Baggerman, who has been working with plastic for the past five years, said it was important to talk about the use of human waste in textile production because we often don’t think about it as a material, even though it is something we use everyday. “The future is thinking about what we can do with materials that are already there, what kind of colours are there and how we can use them,” she said.

Despite not currently having plans to implement the material into the fashion industry, likely due to its more rigid consistency, Baggerman’s project does present an interesting take on circular textile production and the possibilities our waste presents. “If you are a designer you have to think about these things,” she added.

Image: Studio Charde Brouwer, photo by Melanie Schaap Model: Lisa Licht

Alternatively, another peculiar idea presented was the concept of using the human body as a way to make an impact on the environment. Afterlife, a project under development by Dutch creator Charde Brouwer, touched on this idea with a concept that sees our own bodies become breeding grounds for nature. Through her research, Brouwer found a way to continue repairing the world around us, even after we have passed on, using biodegradable materials for clothing that can stimulate nature’s growth and help it rebuild.

“What if our last breath could be one of giving back,” Brouwer said, when introducing the project in a presentation. “After we pass on, the earth could still use our body to feed on. By combining a material with our body, we can transform an end into a beginning.”

Brouwer questioned burying ourselves in polyester and digging up trees only to bury them back in the ground, a process that is not currently circular. The materials produced by Brouwer come in a structure similar to leather, flexible enough to create a garment, and are each coloured using natural ingredients from vegetables and fruits.

While still in the early phase, Brouwer’s idea forms around offering a completely customisable experience, allowing the end wearer or their family to choose the material’s colourings, patterns and, additionally, flower seeds that can be implemented into the final garment and will eventually grow where the person is buried. Though a dark subject, Brouwer believes this method is a one that will change the meaning of cemeteries, bringing a new purpose to life after death.

Despite many concepts surrounding the use of human waste only being in their start up phase, it is becoming increasingly evident in the potential there is in reusing these materials that are already there and, more often than not, surrounding us on a daily basis. While many of these creators have faced challenges with not only their experimentations but also with responses from outsiders, they are determined to help change our perspective, hoping for the industry to finally see not waste but a material ready for use.

Image: Studio Charde Brouwer
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