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This Algae-Based T-Shirt Turns into ‘Worm Food’ at the End of Its Life

Vollebak, a fashion-tech startup based in London, is feting what it claims to be the world’s first T-shirt made entirely from “plants and algae.”

At the end of its life, the $110 Plant and Algae T-shirt can be composted or buried in the ground, where it will biodegrade in 12 weeks and turn into worm food, the company says.

The fabric itself comprises a 30-70 blend of linen and lyocell from pulped eucalyptus and beech grown in Forestry Stewardship Council-certified plantations and turned into yarn using a closed-loop system. Instead of synthetic inks, Vollebak employs a version made using algae—specifically the green variety known as spirulina—that has been raised in a bioreactor, strained into a “soupy algae paste,” sun-dried into powder and then reconstituted using a water-based binder.

While algae ink isn’t exactly colorfast, Vollebak sees this not as a bug but a feature.

“Because it started life as a plant rather than a chemical dye, the natural pigment in algae is more sensitive and won’t behave like color normally does on clothing,” the company writes on its website. “As soon as it comes into contact with air it starts to oxidize, which means the green will begin to change color and your T-shirt may look different from one week to the next as it fades.”

The appeal of a garment that disappears when you’re done with it is undeniable. Roughly 350,000 tons of clothing ends up in U.K. landfills each year, according to the Waste & Resources Action Programme. Interning last season’s castoffs doesn’t come cheap: The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that landfilling clothing and textiles costs the British economy 82 million pounds ($102 million) per year. But biodegradable clothing doesn’t necessarily make sense in a circular economy where resources must be maintained at their highest and best use, critics say.

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“Garment-sorting facilities look for two main things: they’re looking for products to resell because you can get the highest amount of money for them, or they’re looking to recycle. For them, there’s no value in biodegrading something,” Annie Gullingsrud, a circular-fashion consultant and the author of “Fashion Fibers: Designing for Sustainability,” told Sourcing Journal in April.

Neither do composting facilities know how to distinguish between a biodegradable garment and a non-biodegradable one. “There’s a huge difference between preparing something for biodegradability and the plausibility of it actually happening,” Gullingsrud added. “The system’s not set up for it.”

But Vollebak sees its tee as an example of how clothing should be made—in accordance with nature’s rhythms.

“The future of sustainable clothing is likely to be based on the same principles as this T-shirt; it needs to be grown with as little environmental impact as possible,” the company said. “The easier it is to understand the better. And it shouldn’t require huge amounts of effort. The only thing different about this T-shirt is that it grew in soil and water, and that’s where it’s designed to end up, too.”