Winning hearts with algae-based biodegradable leather

The bio-leather, created in 2020 from a mix of algae and organic waste, is an attempt to reduce “white pollution” — the plastic trash left behind in the water — as well as the impacts of the leather tanning industry.
It mimics animal leather only in appearance, but the creator claims it is cruelty-free, waterproof, biodegradable, and long-lasting.
This leather was created by Divya Verma, a Rajasthan-based designer. When Divya Verma was small, she saw that nothing was “waste” in her mother’s cooking. Leftover fruit or vegetable peels, uneaten meals, or fruit seeds would all end up in the garden, where her mother would turn them into fertiliser. She had no idea that this would one day serve as the foundation for her landmark project, Kudarat Bioleather.
In 2018, while studying at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, Divya kept up her passion for sustainability in all her projects. In her second year at NID, she enrolled in a course that researched alternative material alternatives and began working on biomaterials such as bioplastic.
She became aware of the tremendous impact tanning in the leather business had on the environment because of her studies and insights into sustainability and she decided to work around this. The plan was to create leather from microorganisms and kitchen garbage. It would give an eco-friendlier alternative to traditional animal-based leather.
However, as she began to work on the concept, the COVID outbreak came to a sudden halt. With no access to a laboratory, the only place she could experiment was in her kitchen.
The next months were filled with excitement at having a new prospect, uncertainty about whether the kitchen space would be sufficient, and passion at having decided to do something that few would. The biggest difficulty was gaining access to machines. There are several machines in a laboratory, each one dedicated to the work at hand.
Her kitchen countertops, packed with beakers, flasks, and the like, soon resembled a laboratory setup. To conduct her study, Divya would frequently utilise kitchen tools such as measuring cups, utensils, and a weighing scale.
She discovered a variety of alternatives, such as corn starch, milk protein, and so on. Algae was one of them. She conducted a comparison study of the benefits and drawbacks of several materials and concluded that algae would be the best choice.
After deciding on algae as the material, the next obstacle was finding it, which was not difficult for her. Cheliya, Kerala, Rajasthan, and Gujarat offered natural fibres. Seaweed is quite adaptable since it is frequently included in sweets and even in the medical field. Similarly, plant fibres were procured. She contacted friends in Kerala who provided her with banana and coconut fibres, and she acquired jute from Ahmedabad and Rajasthan.
After a year of trial and error, Divya learned the craft and was able to create a prototype, which she termed Kudarat Bioleather, by the end of 2020. This was made up of two main components: algae and organic waste. She also threw out nutshells, eggshells, and woodchips.
She is currently evaluating the material for tensile strength because the thickness of bio-leather might vary. However, she claims that it is superior to animal leather for a variety of reasons.
While the texture is identical to that of animal leather, it is, of course, a preferable option owing to its sustainability. Another advantage is that it does not have the typical pungent odour that animal leather has. Her algae-based leather has a pleasant aroma.
She asserts to be utilising plant-based dyes for the colour, such as roses, marigold flowers, and walnut shells.
Divya’s efforts were recognised when she was named the national runner-up for the James Dyson Awards in September of this year. The prize seeks to recognise, support, and inspire designers with innovative problem-solving approaches.
She also won The Green Product & Concept Award 2022, was one of the top five in the CII Young Designer Awards 2021 (Product Design Category), and finished fifth in the Green Concept Audience Awards 2022.
Divya has applied for a patent, which is now being processed. She is also working on producing more prototypes and finding new ways to treat the material.

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