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Transforming Food Waste Into Vegan Leather with Polybion’s Axel Gómez-Ortigoza

Image Credits: A person holds mango peels. Processing mangos and other fruits for freezing and resale produces high sugar waste that can emit potent methane emissions when sent to the landfill. Polybion redirects this waste from landfills by using it to grown Celium, a vegan leather alternative. Image by: Judgefloro

Audio Editing by: Xu Wangyuxan Blurb by: Elizabeth Sherstinsky Script by: Marie Hogan

Three Birds with One Stone: Addressing Three Environmental Problems

Polybion’s fabric technology addresses three major environmental problems: livestock, food waste, and plastic by replacing leather and plastic with fabric derived from food waste. Because the leather industry is so large, it helps drive cattle production separately from demand for meat. Deforestation due to industrial agriculture land use (which includes land for cattle and land for the crops cattle eat) contributes significantly to climate change and biodiversity loss; a 2018 study found that about 12.4 million acres of forest — the equivalent of more than five Yellowstone National Parks — are cut down each year to clear land for industrial agriculture. Much of this land is for cattle grazing and feed; cows are ruminants, and require greater amounts of nutrients compared to other animals like pigs and chickens. In addition, cow belching famously emits methane, a very potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. 

Food waste is not just a waste of food; it also is a waste of resources used to make and transport food such as energy (including non-renewable energy), water, and land. Rotting food in landfills also emits large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, if global food waste were a country, it would have the third-biggest carbon footprint after the US and China. 

Finally, plastic trash pollution harms wildlife and humans, and plastics contribute greenhouse gas emissions as they break down. Sunlight and heat cause plastic to release methane and ethylene – and at increasing rates as plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. 

Polybion’s “Celium” is a Solution

A startup called Polybion makes a new kind of leather designed to address these issues. Polybion feeds food waste to bacteria, and this bacteria produces cellulose, the base material for this new leather (what Polybion calls “Celium”). Derived from living matter, cellulose is an organic and biodegradable material, unlike the plastic from which most faux leather is derived. Polybion does not use livestock for its product.  Rather, it puts food waste to use, and can compete as a plastic-free alternative to other faux leather products. Polybion states that Celium is a “…versatile textile with endless design possibilities, it can be customized by color, graining, embossing, and water resistance—all while preserving its exceptional strength”. Celium is further advertised as the next eco-friendly generation of luxury leather: “Due to its biological nature, each piece of Celium™ is unique and distinct as a fingerprint, lending it the hallmark of luxury”.  Whether the marketplace agrees remains to be seen.

Who is Axel Gómez-Ortigoza?

Axel Gómez-Ortigoza is CEO and CTO of Polybion. He co-founded Polybion with his brother Alexis Gómez-Ortigoza along with Bárbara González-Rolón. Axel was included in MIT Technology Review’s “Innovators under 35” in 2018. He is originally from Mexico. 

Learn More: 

Polybion Completes Development of World’s First Bacterial Cellulose Biomanufacturing Facility

Polybion: The Future of Biomaterials

Is vegan leather worse for the environment than real leather?

Food waste creates more greenhouse gases than the airline industry – The Washington Post


Transcript:

Ethan: I’m Ethan Elkind, and you’re listening to Climate Break: Climate Solutions in a hurry. Today’s proposal: plastic-free vegan leather, grown by feeding bacteria food scraps otherwise headed for the landfill. We spoke to Axel Gómez-Ortigoza, the CEO of biomaterials startup Polybion, about their new leather alternative Celium. 

Axel: This is an alternative to plastic leather and animal leather that is 100% grown using waste and then we feed that to a bacteria that eats the waste and then in turn secrets a material that resembles and can effectively substitute leather.

Ethan: Before fruits like mangos can be frozen and shipped to the US for consumers to buy, they need to be processed. But this creates lots of waste.

Axel: Normally this gets tossed in the landfill because unfortunately this kind of waste doesn’t have any uses, and this is a very bad problem — because not only it’s huge amounts of these materials, but in landfills, you know, it generates methane. 

Ethan: Because Celium diverts the greenhouse gas generating waste from landfills, Gómez-Ortigoza says it’s a carbon neutral material that could be produced at cost low enough to compete with synthetic leather alternatives.

Axel: The market doesn’t want to use animal leather anymore. The bad thing is that that demand has been substituted with plastic, which is not the actual solution. The most polluting process is animal. The second most polluting is plastic. And our solution, if we consider avoiding that landfill, then we get a material that is negative in carbon. This is never seen before in an alternative leather.

Ethan: To learn more about Celium and using bacteria to grow substitutes for plastics, go to climatebreak.org.

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