Animal-based waste materials: should we even bother?

Are animal-based waste materials a resource that we shouldn't be engaging with? It's a question I've been ruminating about for a while.

In the bio-based materials space, it's easy to take in the range of plant-based materials; seaweed and grain composite materials, or coffee and tapioca based plastics. I have also seen amazing material developments, concrete-like materials made from slaughterhouse blood, waste eggshells, or ground bone based composite materials. Yet, there is a sense of trepidation of using such materials. The advent of veganism, while definitely positive, has potentially pushed a homogenous notion of sustainability. It has filtered into a consumer consciousness primarily in the Western hemisphere - I fully admit I'm a part of this too. I definitely scan labels and feel a sort of green tick of approval when a product is emblazoned with 'vegan friendly'.

(A sample with seaweed based binder on the left - it retains its colour and has a glossy sheen, yet is not fully waterproofed. A sample with casein binder on the right, toughened to a leather like consistency and resistant to water)

This view has opened up for me as I develop HUID. It is an onion skin based material, and I am trialing it with both animal and plant based additives. Although I wish it weren't so, the animal based additive allows the material to have some pretty useful properties with less components involved. The plant-based additive conversely uses a lot of water and does not pass these same tests.

In terms of a footprint, the animal based additive, (in this case, a milk protein) comes from a cow, which we all know is guilty of producing a large sum of carbon emissions as far as agriculture goes. My intention was then to find a way use this as a waste material. Yet, regardless of the fact, hesitation strikes when thinking about the aforementioned vegan movement. The onion skin material has potential to replace plastics - a large creator of emissions and climate issues too - but does its animal component pigeonhole it into a demonized arena?

I spoke to designer Margherita Grassi, who has recently developed RePearls - embellishments that in her eyes, turn trash into treasure. She uses waste oyster shells discarded from seafood restaurants and transforms them into beads and buttons. she has been using their discarded oyster shells to develop her samples so far. She is aware that oysters may not be considered vegan, yet believes that where there is waste of any kind, the best thing to do is to make use of it. "Some restaurants also throw the used oyster shells back in the sea, but if they and I are both in London, the footprint to me can also be considered smaller. Oysters in degradation still play an important role in their eco-system, but the quantities I'm using are so minute. I am also just taking from what is already there as waste."

(Image of RePearls via Margherita Grassi)

Trying to apply that back to the milk, I struggled a little - I don't support the practices in the mass dairy industry (Cowspiracy anyone?). To also clarify, there is a distinction between these mass forms and more localized family owned farms that work on a different set of practices.

The reality is, people are still eating meat, and using dairy. The shift towards a plant-based world is happening, but there's still a fair amount of time before it disappears - especially beyond the Western world. Although I don't agree with the treatment of the cows, what is more painful is that the milk extracted may not be fully used or result in waste. Cycling the waste back into another system feels like the lesser of two evils.

The other reality is that the climate crisis is more imminent than before. Diversifying the natural resources we use to reduce our reliance on plastics and petroleum based materials is key. If the waste is there, and produces a better outcome for the planet, it feels silly to shut the idea out.

This is all to say, I'm not working from a position of complacency or stagnation. Systems must move with the world. Perhaps dairy farms really will become a relic for a rare commodity; companies like Legendairy are busy creating lab-made milk proteins to revolutionize products for people who love both cows and cheese. I fully intend to see that HUID moves to working with companies like that, as well as with companies creating more sophisticated plant based solutions in the future. In the meantime, I'll keep developing with a critical eye, doing the best in the moment.

Garlic samples - the sample on the left contains the animal based additive, the sample on the right has been made flexible with a plasticizer and seaweed derivative. The difference in colouration is noticeable - the casein based sample is yellowed.

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