Vietnamese designer Uyen Tran has developed a flexible bio-material called Tômtex, a leather alternative made from seafood waste that can be embossed with several different patterns. The name tôm (shrimp) references the discarded food that is mixed with coffee grounds to create the textile. The biodegradable material is durable while soft enough to be hand-stitched or machine-sewn
In a bid to kill two birds with one stone, Tran developed a leather alternative 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 world is running out of raw materials, so she wants to re-purpose these wastes into a new, accessible bio-material for everyday life to help people better understand the problem and contribute to making a change.
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. This is found in the exoskeleton of insects and crustaceans, rendering them both tough and pliable at the same time. 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 colour options. Poured into the mold, the mixed material is air-dried at room temperature for two days. The process doesn’t require heat, therefore it saves more energy and reduces carbon footprint.
Rather than leaving the material in a smooth mold, Tran, as 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 decorations. Tômtex can replicate any textural surface and it can be customized to be either leather-like, rubber-like or plastic-like by adjusting the formula and the way of production. So the possible applications go beyond fashion to packaging, interior or industrial design. Moreover, the resulting material is also naturally water-resistant, a feature that can be enhanced by adding a coating of beeswax on top.
When a Tômtex product has reached the end of its life, Tran claims it can be either recycled or be left to biodegrade. If Tômtex ends up in the landfill, it will fully biodegrade in the natural environment in a few months and can act as a fertilizer for plants.