Food for Thought

Recap SYMBIOSIS deep dive: Circular ecosystem around tomatoleather

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In one of BlueCity’s most amazing spaces (the former direction chamber of Tropicana, with almost 240 degrees of river view), a divers crowd came together to discuss the potential of a material that is developed in co-creation with a number of players in the economy. The deepdive happened during SYMBIOSIS symposium 2022. Bootsy Akkerman was present to take notes of the most interesting findings from the conversation.

Tomatoleather, made from greenhouse material

Biophilica is an internationally known startup creating materials from plant waste. Though the founder Mira Nameth was educated as a biodesigner, she worked in the fashion industry for many years before. With her materials company, she strives to impact the world through scale. The conversation of this deep dive was mainly focused on the thresholds she sees around funding and sourcing material. As the conversation unfolds something became clear: the 100% fossil-free leather has high qualities, yet will not perform as it’s vegan polyurethane sisters it tends to replace. The never-ending durability of fossil materials causes a negative impact on society.  Companies like Biophilica strive for a balance with nature, and see compostability of the material as an important characteristic to make it future-proof. Tomato Leather is just one of the products Biophilica creates. The recipe for their leathers allow various  plant materials high in lignocellulose to be used as fillers for the leather, resulting in a special, seasonal leatherlike material every time. In her lab in London, Mira and her team create a variety of leathers and do all kinds of tests to improve the durability and other characteristics of the material.

Conversation in progress

The group consisted of a green waste manager from Renewi, a biobased economy specialist from Greenport West-Holland, various designers, among them someone who designed a bag with Tomato Leather. Also attending were guests interested in the supply chain around it and two investors who wanted to learn more about the material, and it’s potential. The group established some questions and barriers for scaling up the material, with this case study at the table.

The following topics were discussed:
1. How to remove the barriers for scaling up?
2. How can we (the ecosystem) contribute to scaling?
3. Applications & parameters.
4. Availability of bio-based adhesives
5. Knowledge of plastics and metals in raw waste material
6. Funding to scale; large scale production and energy-efficient production lines

The bumpy road of product development

All application depends on use and length of use. That’s why products are important for Biophilica. They create the half fabricate: the leather, and collaborate extensively with all kinds of brands to test the product market combinations. Shoes for example are stretched a lot and car seat leather needs to be used for 15+ years. But fashionable leather, like watch straps and wallets, can already be replaced with Biophilica’s leathers.

A purse made from Treekind Tomato Leather

Biophilica sees their product as biomimicry, after use it can be put in the ground again and just like a leaf from a tree, it can be broken down by nature. They will never use petrochemicals in the production.  One of the largest thresholds for material creators is the importance of adhesives and coatings in this industry, but the absence of bio-based glues.

Mira’s team did many recycling tests: they broke down sheets and then made new sheets from that material. The properties stayed more or less the same, only the product became a bit stiffer. The solution is to change it usage; first use it as a watchstrap, break it down, then make it into a construction material. The other option is to dilute the recycled material with new material. The drying of the material is essential for its quality, but also brings along risks like ‘hot-spots’.

The right materials should be used to scale up production. Mira now has a steady amount of money from investments to hire new members and will start a small scale production line in August. This is only the beginning.

Biophilica Tomato Leather as part of the BlueCity Exhibition

Clean input needed for a good result

The most interesting part of the conversation was that the greenhouse materials are a very constant waste flow for producers like Biophilica with very little by-waste. And yet there are still some traces of the plastic strings used in the tomato industry, while producers like Biophilica need a stable supply of feedstock or raw material without such contaminations to fulfill the promise of a 100% compostable material. Peter Baselier from Renewi suggested that Mira uses the Renewi space to start her factory. 99% of leaves and stems of all green materials will work in Biophilica’s process as long as the material is clean enough to process. That is a task for our whole economy. With plastic and metal waste inside the current residual streams, the outcome of the process will never be completely plastic free.

This blog is the result of a two-hours deep dive: a conversation at the start of BlueCity’s annual SYMBIOSIS symposium.

Author: Nienke Binnendijk
Pictures: Jacqueline Fuijkscho
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