Seafood shells and coffee grounds make up this versatile leather alternative

Vietnamese designer Uyen Tran has developed a flexible bio-material called Tômtex, a leather alternative made from food waste, that can be embossed with a variety of patterns to replicate animal leathers.

The name tôm, meaning shrimp, references the discarded seafood shells that are mixed with coffee grounds to create the textile. According to Tran, the biodegradable material is durable while remaining soft enough to be hand-stitched or machine-sewn. “Leather is used in so many applications across different industries, but people around the world are suffering from the pollution that the industry causes.”

In a bid to kill two birds with one stone, Tran developed a substitute using an abundant, natural resource – food waste. Every year, up to eight million tonnes of waste seafood shells and 18 million tonnes of waste coffee grounds are generated by the global food and drinks industry.

The New York-based designer works with a supplier in Vietnam, who gathers waste shrimp, crab, and lobster shells as well as fish scales, to extract a biopolymer called chitin from them. Combined with waste coffee from Tran’s own kitchen and from local cafes, this forms the basis of Tômtex. The mixture is dyed using natural pigments such as charcoal, coffee, and ochre to create a variety of color options.

Crucially, rather than leaving the material to cure in a perfectly smooth mold, the designer crafts her own from clay or using a 3D printing process. This allows her to create her own finishes which are able to mimic the look of snakeskin or crocodile leather as well as more abstract embellishments. Because of its versatile ability to mimic other leathers, Tômtex actually has the potential to become an effective leather alternative in the fashion world.

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