Would you wear a shirt if the label said it was made of shit?
Chances are you’re currently wearing something made of cotton. Ever since the fifth millennium BC, people have used the natural fiber derived from the cotton plant in textile production, and it’s now an enormous industry. Currently, the plant is growing on about 2.5 percent of the world’s arable land to supply the world with 25 million tons it uses every year.
That land use comes at a cost. First of all, cotton needs water to grow. The WWF estimated that around 10,000 liters of water are required to produce 1 kilogram of cotton textile – enough for a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Look around you and you’ll see why this is a problem in a world that’s increasingly pressed for water. Second, growing cotton is like growing any other crop; to grow it efficiently, farmers use fertilizers and pesticides. Those chemicals run off into streams, aquafiers, and lakes, contaminating the water with excess nitrogen and deadly pesticides.
And that’s before the dirtiest step in the process, the dyeing and finishing.
So, what can we do? One solution is wearing organically sourced cotton, which might be easier on the environment in terms of chemicals, but uses way more water along the way. Another solution could be coming out of the rear end of cows.
Cotton fiber is basically pure cellulose which is processed into yarn. But as you might remember from biology class, all green plants produce cellulose, just not in the same concentration as cotton. Wood, for example, contains about 40 to 50 percent cellulose, whereas cotton consists of 90 percent of the good stuff.
The only problem is how to get it out. Cotton cellulose is easily gained because of its high concentration. Plants with lower concentrations require more processing before producing a useful quantity. That processing doesn’t necessarily have to be in wasteful factories though.
Cows are famous for having four stomachs (in fact, they have one, consisting of four compartments, but whatever right) to be able to digest tough grass. One way to look at this is that they’re eating grass, extracting the nutrients they need to survive, and dropping waste.
Another way would be to see that they’re ingesting a rough source material that’s high in cellulose content, taking out all the material useless to textile production, and producing a base material that mostly consists of the cellulose needed.
That’s more or less how artist and entrepreneur Jalilia Essaidi approached the problem. While researching genetically modified goats that produce spider silk in their milk, which in turn can be used for bulletproof human skin grafts, she developed a method to turn cow manure into cellulose fiber.
“Our solution turns an acute agricultural problem of waste into a sustainable source of raw material for the textile industry,” she told us.
The method she’s calling Mestic solves two problems at once: at scale, it could get rid of both excess manure and polluting cotton farming.
She estimates the excess manure excreted worldwide could provide us with over ten times the cellulose we need to fullfill our wildest fashion desires.
TNW went to a farm to observe her process, and talk about how this poopy solution could change the world.
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