10: Seaweed, algae and toilet paper textiles


Synthetic textiles are economically efficient to produce but are largely based on petroleum products –  harmful to the environment and very slow to decompose. Natural fabrics like cotton are nutrient intensive, putting a strain on soil and other resources.


Sea algae grow much faster and need less nutrients then cotton.

Nienke Hoogvliet is a Dutch artist who grew up in a coastal area where algae and seaweed is abundant.

While studying Lifestyle & Design at Rotterdam’s Willem de Kooning Academy, she took some of these sea algae, hand-knotted them into an old fishing net and presented the resulting SEA ME rug at the Dutch Design Week 2014.

With funding from the StimuleringsfondsCreatieveIndustrie, Hoogvliet’s research extended and she discovered uses for the sustainable yarn beyond the textile industry.

Exploring a circular zero waste process (where the waste of one process fuels a second and so on until there is nothing left) led her to unearth the advantages of seaweed as a natural dye.

She collected over 20 different species of seaweed in her native Oosterschelde and experimented. She also visited Ireland, where a potential of 110 ton (110,000 kg) of seaweed floats ashore every year. Each species gives a different color, showing a color palette that reflects this nature reserve.

In 2015, in collaboration with Xandra van der Eijk, Hoogvliet, based in the Hague, presented “Colors of the Oosterschelde”, comprising a bio-plastic chair, a table and bowls at the Dutch Design Week

With the results of this research charted in a self-published 100-page book, “Seaweed Research” (purchase »» here), Hoogvliet’s experimentation with sustainable materials continued with her discovering that fish skins, a waste product of the fishing industry, can also be made into a leather alternative.

She went to fish shops to collect their waste and by using an old technique, that requires a lot of manual labour, she created a strong, sustainable and beautiful material that can be used like regular leather.

Finding a chemical-free, labour-intensive method for tanning the skins, Hoogvliet reached into the deep again and developed RE-SEA ME.

To show the abilities of her leather, Hoogvliet designed a small stool with fish leather seating. For this project she used salmon skins, but almost any kind of fish can be used to make leather.

While the tanning process was done by hand the Dutch designer believes it also has potential to be produced at a larger scale. Nienke Hoogvliet collected her research into the sustainability of the fishing- and leather-tanning industry in her book “Fish Leather”, where she explains the natural tanning process and hopes to encourage others to use this technique.

Whilst there is an intrinsic beauty in fish skin and seaweed, how does one arrive at used toilet paper? By invite it would seem: impressed with her fine work with sustainable materials, the Dutch Water Authorities invited Hoogvliet to design products that would show off their good work in recovering valuable energy and raw materials from wastewater.

Setting ‘fine sieve’ installations into place, water authorities Aa & Maas and Hoogheemraadschap Hollands NoorderkWartier were able to reclaim plenty of the 190,000 tons (180,000 tonnes) (190K US ton.) of toilet paper that is flushed down the toilets of the Netherlands each year. (That is 180,000 trees.)

Hoping to create the sort of positive association with this unpleasant material, these authorities invited Hoogvliet to design products that would show off their good work in recovering valuable energy and raw materials from wastewater.

Eight sewage treatment plants have already transformed into Energy Factories, with preparations underway for a further nine, green electricity can be garnered from the treatment process – as can phosphate, which can be used to produce fertilisers.

Proving time and time again that she can find a rare beauty in materials once discarded, no matter how disagreeable, Hoogvliet used the cleaned pulp to produce unique, handmade products: a collection of objects, consisting of a table, lighting, and decorative bowls.

In May 2019, in New York she exhibited “Kaumera Kimono”, which combines dyes extracted from wastewater like Anammox and Vivianite with the cutting-edge material Kaumera, an alginate-like biopolymer that amplifies a textile’s ability to absorb dye. The result is that less water is required, and polluted, in the dyeing process.

Nienke Hoogvliet’s work, raising awareness of social and environmental problems in the textile, leather and food industry, is exhibited worldwide from the Artipelag in Stockholm to New York’s Cooper Hewitt Design Museum.

Discover solution 11: a reforestation that slows desert growth with 7.5 million acres of trees.

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