Fashion has long displayed a penchant for turning trash into treasure. One need look no further than Project Runway's "trashion" challenge or Girlfriend Collective's cult favorite leggings made from recycled bottles for proof. But as climate change looms larger and more deadly than ever, a new generation of creative thinkers are trying to push these repurposing limits: Can the industry go beyond recycling plastic and cotton to turn one of the world's deadliest kinds of waste — the greenhouse gases that cause global warming — into lifestyle products?
According to Mark Herrema, the founder of Newlight Technologies, the answer is yes.
"Seventeen years ago, we had this question: Why are we letting carbon go into the air? What if we could use it as a resource to make products?" he says. "If you could do that, then it would potentially be one pathway to reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere."
Though a relatively straightforward idea — carbon is, after all, one of the chemical building blocks that makes up everything from trees to human bodies — it's taken more than a decade to actualize. The method Herrema and his team eventually settled on, after years of testing, involves feeding methane (a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide) to ocean microorganisms, which then create a molecule called PHB that becomes meltable when purified. From there, it can be used much like plastic is, formed into everything from cutlery to handbags.
The resulting proprietary material, called AirCarbon, is the primary ingredient in the purses, wallets, sunglasses, laptop sleeves and more that Newlight Technologies has released under its new accessories sub-brand Covalent. And though it can be used much like a plastic would — in sunglasses frames, for example, or as part of a leather alternative — it breaks down far quicker than plastic does. Third-party tests for biodegradability, Herrema says, ranked AirCarbon as breaking down more quickly than cellulose (the compound cotton is largely made of) in water.
"You'd need to have it with the nutrients and organisms and all the things you find in ocean water or soil in order for this material to break down," Herrema says, "but it's a natural material and it breaks down at natural material speeds."
Water not infused with the living organisms that populate the ocean and healthy soil won't degrade the material, though, which is why cutlery made from it is dishwasher safe and doesn't get soggy — a fact Herrema knows well, because Newlight has also launched a foodware brand using AirCarbon called Restore. (Covalent fashion accessories are made of AirCarbon that's been mixed with natural and synthetic rubber to get the right feel and flexibility, while Restore products are 99% AirCarbon.)
AirCarbon's environmental stats are impressive. It's made by naturally-occurring ocean microorganisms using methane captured from dairy farms or leaking abandoned coal mines, and manufactured in a facility powered by 100% renewable energy. The end product biodegrades more quickly than leaves do. If these claims are all taken at face value, Herrema's assertion that AirCarbon is not only carbon neutral, but actually carbon negative (without the need to resort to buying offsets) seems credible.
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But how significant are the quantities of greenhouse gas that Newlight's products prevent from leaking into the atmosphere? Herrema admits that the answer, so far, is not enough to make a real dent in the climate crisis.
"A single product is maybe a kilogram of CO2 [equivalent] that would otherwise be in the air. And that's obviously by itself not going to solve the problem," he says. "One of the criticisms that we've gotten is that this is just a drop in the bucket. And that's definitely true."
Part of the value of working on consumer products related to fashion and food, though, is that they have more power to capture people's imagination than un-sexy innovations that impact things like "the back of your refrigerator," he says. Herrema is living proof of what can happen when someone's imagination is taken captive by ideas about climate: His own company was started after he read a newspaper article about the heat-trapping effects of methane emissions. He's hopeful his own actions might inspire others to see how they can get involved.
"These products alone are not going to solve climate change," he says. "But what they can do is start to change people's perceptions of what's possible with greenhouse gas, and maybe get people to start thinking, 'Why can't more materials be made in a way that actually sequesters carbon rather than emitting it?' If we're lucky, it becomes a catalyst point."
Herrema's logic is echoed by the founders of one of the other most serious contenders in the turning-greenhouse-gases-into-products space. Air Company, founded in 2017 by Greg Constantine and Stafford Sheehan, addresses the same problem with a slightly different approach: Rather than making handbags and forks, Air Company makes alcohol. It launched with its first product, Air Vodka, this fall, with plans to expand into other alcohol-based products, like perfume, in the future.
Air Company's process is different than Newlight's, in that it relies solely on electricity and chemistry, rather than living organisms, to transform greenhouse gases into something useful for humans.
"We use electrolysis in water, which is [made of] hydrogen and oxygen. We power that with renewable electricity. And then we combine the hydrogen with carbon dioxide to produce ethanol," Sheehan says.
Right now, the brand turns that ethanol into vodka — vodka that's won awards for its sleek packaging and has been described as "clean and crisp like a shard of light" by people who presumably know what makes a good vodka. To keep their product carbon-negative, Sheehan and Constantine don't just manufacture with renewable energy. They also produce hyper-locally, with plans to open small manufacturing facilities wherever they sell, as transportation can add a huge emissions burden to any product. (For right now, they're just manufacturing and distributing in New York City.)
"We end up with a net-negative of -1.45 or -1.47 CO2 emissions per kilogram of ethanol we produce," Sheehan says, even when transportation and the production of packaging are taken into account.
Beyond vodka, Air Company's plan is to expand to other ethanol-based consumer goods in the future. But Sheehan and Constantine's long-term goal is much bigger: They want to target the world of ethanol-based fuels for cars, jets and whatever else can't easily convert fully to electrical power.
If they can tap into that market, Sheehan says, "we're able to see a horizon for this technology that could potentially reduce our global CO2 emissions by around 7%. That may not sound like a lot, but think about all the CO2 that's being burned and let into our atmosphere — 7% is billions of tons."
To professionals in the climate space, 7% may sound like a lot. It's a plan so ambitious for what's currently a vodka startup, in fact, that it might make some scoff. But the duo behind Air Company, like Herrema at Newlight, see the wisdom in starting with something more consumer-friendly than jet fuel. They began by targeting a general consumer, explains Constantine, to prove the viability of their business model and raise awareness of what they're doing before trying to get into bigger markets.
"There are so many amazing, innovative, big technical technologies like this that never see the light of day, because they never get merged with commercialization through consumer products," he says.
So just how much value does all this bring to the fight against climate change? According to climate scientist Chris Field, a researcher and professor at Stanford, it depends on how you look at it.
On the one hand, he explains, these are innovative, interesting technologies. But on the other, "it's important not to get lured into the false narrative that that's the climate solution," he says. "A 0.1% solution is a 0.1% contribution. A solution is a great thing to have and deserves a chance in the marketplace, but it doesn't solve the problem."
For all the attention petroleum-based products like plastic get, Field warns that even totally replacing plastics won't be enough to turn the tide on carbon emissions. It might be good for reducing plastic pollution, he says, but "if we really want to talk about the supply chains that are meaningful in magnitude compared to CO2 emissions, it's concrete, steel and sand." Without finding ways to address the building sector, he adds, we're not really making a dent.
The sector he mentions is, of course, decidedly less sexy and consumer-facing than the products that Air Company and Newlight's Covalent have chosen to launch with.
So are purses and vodka and reusable cutlery made of greenhouse gases going to provide a ticket out of the climate crisis? Almost certainly not. But perhaps, Field suggests, that's asking the wrong question.
"We often get caught up in this conversation about how big a contribution needs to be to be worth discussing as part of the portfolio of climate change solutions," he says. "But it wouldn't bother me if we decarbonize by using a thousand different solutions, each of which contribute a tenth or more percent to the overall problem."
Despite Field's cautionary words about not over-inflating the size of the solution, this parting sentiment sounds remarkably like Sheehan's. Even if turning atmospheric carbon and methane into handbags and perfume can't stave off climate catastrophe, maybe they should still be given a shot — especially if their existence could pave the way for further solutions down the road.
"People think there's going to be some magic silver bullet that's going to solve climate change, but that's just not how it is," Sheehan says. "We need a portfolio of solutions that all will come together. And I think our technology has the potential to be a part of that portfolio."