Why you should care

One day you might be wearing clothes made from sequestered carbon — and that’s a good thing.

Mind Melt: Climate change is spawning a mental health crisis. Mind Melt: Climate change is spawning a mental health crisis.

In a shadowy corner of the Cooper Hewitt Museum on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, visitors may come across a mannequin wearing a clear plastic raincoat. At first glance, the coat looks like any other raincoat found at Walgreens or Target. But the exhibit label reveals that this is no ordinary shield against the elements.

The raincoat, featured in the exhibit Nature — Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial, is actually a carbon-negative artwork created from a plastic made from algae. And while stylish and functional, it won’t be hitting stores anytime soon.

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The raincoat at the Cooper Hewitt Museum.

Source Carly Stern

Charlotte McCurdy, a computational economist and industrial designer, created the coat for her graduate thesis, “After Ancient Sunlight,” at the Rhode Island School of Design. The goal? To spark a dialogue about how our fashion choices could actively combat climate change. In other words, McCurdy wants to offer people hope.

When we try to offset our carbon output, we tend to create products that transform waste from fossil fuels into useful materials, McCurdy says. But that approach still relies on human emissions. She wants to explore options that go beyond simply offsetting the damage. To create the raincoat, McCurdy used a process known as carbon sequestration — a carbon is pulled directly from the atmosphere and stored as gas or liquid — and grew algae via photosynthesis (a process, you might remember from science class, that requires chlorophyll, sunlight, water and carbon dioxide). 

The top-level effect I hope the project has is to create hope.

Charlotte McCurdy

The way McCurdy sees it, society is telling the wrong story about plastic. There’s an emphasis on pollution and waste that ends up in the noses of sea turtles, but, she argues, plastic’s effect on marine populations “is much stronger through climate change than it is through waste.” She wants to start a conversation about waste intrinsic to the materials we use and wear. Plastic, because it’s accessible, is McCurdy’s way of inviting people to talk about what a decarbonized future could look like. “The top-level effect I hope the project has is to create hope,” she says.

The exhibit also features other fashion-related pieces created by scientists, engineers and advocates, such as a coat made of 3D-printed faux fur and animal-free bio-leather created from genetically engineered yeast.

McCurdy’s raincoat is meant to represent extreme weather and evoke effects of climate change that people are already experiencing, says Matilda McQuaid, deputy curatorial director and head of textiles at Cooper Hewitt. Another version of the coat is on display at the Cube design museum in the Netherlands. The design took one year to develop, and there are only four such raincoats in existence, says McCurdy.

McCurdy’s eyes light up as she gives detailed scientific explanations of plastic processes. Yet in spite of all that fervor, she notes that there are no current plans to commercialize the raincoat. “In many ways, what Charlotte is proposing is not so much about advocating this for fashion,” says McQuaid, but instead pushing for “a general rethinking of our use of petroleum-based products and trying to shift our mindset toward algae as a promising material.”

Other players are signaling interest in a similar approach to commercial products. BioMason, a North Carolina–based biotechnology startup, is using bacteria to “grow” cement and make bricks. Carbon sequestration is also being used in tall timber construction for buildings. And AlgiKnit is a company working to create bio-based textiles from algae and kelp.

Although the carbon-negative space is nascent, McCurdy’s algae raincoat might stoke a more powerful storm of action by showing what’s possible. After all, dialogue begets momentum for action. And when it rains, it pours.

Nature — Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial runs through Jan. 20, 2020.

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