Researchers at the University of Portsmouth and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) have unwittingly engineered a mutant enzyme that can super-charge the breakdown of PET plastic – the plastic you find in everyday plastic bottles. The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and reported on Phys.org.
Dr. John McGeehan at the University of Portsmouth and Dr. Gregg Beckham were studying the structure of PETase, an enzyme found in 2016 in bacteria in a waste recycling center in Japan. This bacterium had naturally evolved to slowly digest PET plastic.
To better understand how PETase works, the team utilized intense X-ray beams that are 10-billion times brighter than the sun to see individual atoms. They did some tweaking of the enzyme to better understand its structure during their research, which resulted in the mutation.
The unintended result? They inadvertently engineered an enzyme that is much faster at degrading plastic than the one that was discovered in Japan.
“It’s incredible because it tells us that the enzyme is not yet optimized,” said Dr. McGeehan, in an article by science writer Damian Carrington in the Guardian. “It gives us scope to use all the technology used in other enzyme development for years and years to make a super-fast enzyme.”
We Need to Get a Handle on Our Plastic Consumption
Humans consume 50 billion plastic water bottles every year; 30 million of which are consumed by Americans. And plastic bottles and bags are the most prevalent form of pollution found on our beaches and in our oceans.
Every square mile of the ocean has over 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in it. (Source: Ocean Conservatory via the Huffington Post.)
Yet, we only recycle about 28% of the PET plastic we use. This recycled PET is generally used in different products than what is was originally used for, such as clothing, carpets, and even dog collars, flip flops, and sunglasses. Utilizing enzymes, plastic can be recycled back into its near “virgin” form, which means it can be used again to create similar products, reducing the need to create new plastic from fossil fuels, and not to mention – giving us even more reason to recycle it.
“Design is not just about product. Design is about responsibility.”
–Dr. Carmen Hijosa, founder and CEO of Ananas Anam, the creator of Piñatex
Welcome to the Golden Age of cruelty-free shoes and accessories! It took a while to get here (and there’s still work to do) but we have finally, mercifully, arrived!
It’s not lost on us that the distinguished host ushering us into this new era is an innovative faux leather made from pineapple leaves. An international symbol of hospitality, the pineapple is the perfect way to welcome even the non-vegans among us to the world of sustainable, cruelty-free style.
To go directly to the cool shoes and accessories made with Piñatex at the bottom of this article, simply click these links:
Piñatex is the inspiration of Dr. Carmen Hijosa, a former consultant to the leather industry. While on a business trip to the Philippines in the ‘90s, she witnessed the amount of toxic chemicals used in leather production and their impact on workers and the environment. She knew that something had to change.
Leather is problematic at every stage of its product lifecycle, from the cruelty to animals who are exploited for their skin, to its toxic production process, and finally, to the disposal of leather goods after we’re done with them. Because skin is a biological material, it’s meant to decompose. Leather is treated with chemicals to prevent this natural process from occurring, so contrary to popular belief, leather is not a biodegradable material.
On her travels, Dr. Hijosa was inspired by the Philippine locals who made clothing out of plant fibers. And while touring pineapple plantations, she was struck by the amount of pineapple leaves that were discarded as agricultural waste.
These experiences led her to develop Piñatex, which is a non-woven material that is environmentally sustainable. Ananas Anam, the parent company of Piñatex, of which Dr. Hijosa is CEO, subscribes to circular economy and cradle-to-cradle principles. Not only is Piñatex vegan and eco-friendly, it also provides scalable commercial business opportunities for rural farming communities.
The Sustainable, Cradle-to-Cradle Lifecycle of Products Made from Piñatex
Here’s a great video from Ananas Anam on how Piñatex is made:
Maniwala is a U.S.-based creator of sustainable, vegan accessories that are made from hemp and Piñatex pineapple leather. Maniwala is member of 1% for the Planet, donating 1% of sales revenue to environmental non-profits.
Wonder Women of the World is a mission-based organization based in Paris that helps women who are out work learn new skills and get back on their feet. All of their creations are ethical and cruelty-free. This 100% vegan card holder will hold a couple credit cards and your driver’s license. It measures: 4” x 2.4”
And for your most important accessory of all – your cell phone – of course, we’ve got some pineapple leather for that too. These sustainable cell phone sleeves, also created by Eve and Adis, come in black, bone white, and gold. Eve and Adis will create a case to fit your specific phone. Just reach out to them via their store on Etsy.
Music is one of the greatest joys of my life. I’ve got a rebellious, anti-establishment nature, and it’s one of the things I truly appreciate about my favorite artists – that they’re not afraid to go against the grain and speak their minds.
That innate rebelliousness must be why leather originally made its way into the styles worn by so many musical performers, from hip hop artists, to rockers, to metal heads, country artists, and more.
It’s arguable where the association of leather and rebelliousness originated, and not to mention, the association of leather and sex appeal. Cowboys, outlaws, and Native Americans in the Wild West wore leather, probably more for functionality than looks, but that’s how fashion is born – like any art form, it reflects the cultural perceptions of an era.
Wikipedia sources the original leather jacket back to the early 1900s, when they were worn by aviators, and then became known as “bomber jackets” in WWII. Leather jackets were also worn by the rebellious Russian Bolsheviks, who came to power during the Russian Revolution of 1917. Of course, one of the most iconic rebels of all time, James Dean, wore leather. And later on, one of my all time favorites – Jim Morrison did too.
But all of that is interesting history, and we are living in the now. Our world is different today, and thus what it means to be a rebel is different. If you’re not a rebel for your own times, then you’re just a relic.
Neither the Bolsheviks nor the Lizard King had access to social media the way we do today. And through social media, I’ve come to learn a lot more about leather and what it takes to produce it. It is anything but sexy.
Every year, the global leather industry slaughters more than one billion animals for their skins and hides (PETA). That is far too many sensitive, social creatures suffering greatly because we want to wear leather – despite the fact that we have scads of super cool alternatives to choose from (unlike our forebears in the Wild West.) Animals used by humans to make clothing, shoes, wallets, purses, luggage, and other accessories include cows, crocodiles, snakes, ostriches, and even dogs and cats. Not only do the animals suffer, but our health and the environment do too.
The production of leather and suede isn’t healthy for the workers who are producing it. Skin is a biological material that naturally decomposes when it’s dead. Leather clothing and shoes do not decompose because they’ve been treated with chemical preservatives during the tanning process. Tanning is considered one of the most toxic industrial processes in the world due to the number of harmful chemicals used. (Gizmodo)
I’ll venture to say that the true rebels today are the ones who are ditching leather altogether, and hopefully, setting the trend for others to follow in their footsteps.
Call me overly sensitive, but I hate it when I see my favorite musical artists wearing leather, like I hate it if I learn that one of my favorite athletes cheats by using performance-enhancing drugs. It turns me off and, yeah, it gets in the way of my enjoyment of their music or their sport.
The two reasons it bugs me more when they do it than when other people do (though that bugs me too) is that, fair or not, musical artists and professional athletes are watched, listened to, adored, and celebrated far more than, say, dentists or bus drivers. They’re envied because they’re making money doing what they love, they’re good at it, and they even get the chicks (or the dudes, as the case may be.) They have the almighty power to influence a lot of people and to shift culture.
I can see why someone would want to be like Jim Morrison. He was irreverent, sexy, and talented. But Jim Morrison is dead and so are his leather pants.
If you’re a musical performer and you have any sense of empathy or respect for life, don’t wear animal skin. You have the power to influence the style of dozens, if not thousands, of fans, and to therefore dispel a hell of a lot of suffering from the world.
The Purple Suede Fringe Pants
When I was in my twenties, I owned a pair of purple suede hip huggers that laced up the front and had long purple suede fringe from the knees to the floor. When I found those pants in a used clothing store in Austin, my only two thoughts were: Damn, those are cool! and Will they fit? I wasn’t thinking about the fact that they were made with someone else’s skin.
They reminded me of The Who and Cher and Sly and the Family Stone. I felt like a rock star when I wore them. They were vintage, so they were recycled, and recycling is better than putting old things into the landfill, right? But if I had been aware then of what I am today, I would not have bought those pants. Those pants were attention getters – and based on what I know today, I don’t want that kind of attention.
At the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, you can look in my closet and find a pair of leather boots and a pair of leather hiking shoes. They’re not worn out yet, and I may still get some use out of them, so I’ve kept them. But honestly, I can’t look at them without thinking about animals.
I know it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to go through their closets and replace every item they own that’s made from animals with something new that’s vegan. But we can all start. When it comes to buying new things – it’s high time that all of us ditch the animal skin. And it’s way over time for clothing, shoes, and accessories designers to stop designing cruelty into their creations.
Let’s be rebels with a cause: and that cause is to get others to stop buying and wearing animals’ skin.
Here are some cool products that are not made with leather:
Cork isn’t just for wine bottles and laundry room bulletin boards anymore. Like hemp and bamboo, it is a darling of sustainable materials because of its multi-faceted, good-for-people-and-planet qualities. Today you can find a variety of eco-friendly products made from cork, including cell phone cases, wallets, purses, hats, and more.
The Cork Forest Conservation Alliance (CFCA) has a wealth of information about the many wonders of cork. And if you haven’t seen it, be sure to check out CFCA Founder Patrick Spencer’s TED Talk on cork. This is a win-win-win (people, planet, and profits) story we all love.
Why Cork Is So Awesome
It’s a 100% natural, renewable, recyclable, and biodegradable material that is obtained through an Earth-friendly harvesting process.
Cork oak trees don’t need to be cut down to harvest the cork. Instead, the bark is harvested by hand every nine years, and cork oak trees can live for up to 300 years. When cork is harvested, a tree is saved.
And it gets better: when the cork bark is harvested, the tree is able to absorb even more CO2 from the environment.
Cork oak forests support one of the world’s highest levels of forest biodiversity, second only to the Amazonian Rainforest. There are approximately 6.6 million acres of Mediterranean cork forest across Portugal, Spain, Algeria, Morocco, Italy, Tunisia, and France.
13,000 species of animals, plants, and insects are found in these cork forests that are not found anywhere else.
Thousands of families are supported by natural cork harvesting. (So not only are plastic or aluminum wine caps tacky, tacky, tacky and bad for the environment, they’re bad for families too.)
Cork is a plentiful resource. There is enough cork in the cork forests of Portugal and Spain alone to last more than 100 years. With the introduction of composite cork and using granulated cork obtained from smaller, leftover pieces of raw cork, there is now better utilization of existing cork resources than ever before. (CFCA)
Cotton is a widely used natural fiber, but unfortunately, it is not ecologically friendly. Whether cotton is organic or not, it does require a lot of water to produce. For example, it can take more than 20,000 liters of water to produce 1 kilogram of cotton–which makes the equivalent of one t-shirt and a pair of jeans. However, organic cotton is far superior to non-organic cotton when it comes to human health, the health of animals, and also the environment.
Here are the problems with non-organic cotton:
Non-organic cotton uses a lot of insecticides and pesticides: 2.4% of the world’s crop land is planted with cotton, and yet cotton accounts for 24% of the insecticides and 11% of the pesticides used globally. Pesticides and insecticides not only destroy natural habitats and kill insects–like bees–they also cause severe health impacts in field workers. (World Wildlife Fund)
Genetically-modified (GM) cotton has increased dramatically in recent years. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 94% of the cotton grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. (USDA)
The list of how genetically modified seeds and crops are harming humans, animals, insects, and the environment is extensive. In the case of genetically modified cotton, it has caused farm workers to become ill with skin and respiratory problems, it has killed livestock that have ingested it, and it’s built resistance in the very pests that the genetic modification was meant to curtail, requiring farmers to increase their use of pesticides. (Canadian Biotechnology Action Network)
While it’s difficult to avoid cotton altogether, wherever possible, opt for organic cotton. Yes, it can be more expensive, but more people buying products made from organic cotton will help drive down the price. And it’s superiority to non-organic cotton when it comes to human, animal, and environmental health is undeniable.