Consumerism but make it seaweed
It was 2019, London, a starting line lined up along the Thames. And as red-faced racers ran and stretched around the track, a team of sidelines offered relief in a small package: rather than plastic water bottles or paper cups, drinks were handed out in palm-sized pods. The clear capsules were edible, biodegradable, a grab-and-go alternative to garbage feed. And they came courtesy of seaweed.
Smooth, slimy seaweed isn’t just being reimagined for the running class. Macroalgae, as some might say, is having a moment among those interested in countering climate change. A surge of startups is mapping seaweed farms to capture carbon from the atmosphere. Others look for seaweed reduce global warming emissions and steady ocean acids. Still others are incorporating algae into art and design, exploring how seaweed can become a sustainable substitute in our everyday products.
In that final vision, we’ll turn on lamps fitted with laser-cut seaweed lace, or pen Christmas cards on seaweed-speckled paper. We pack biodegradable sea cutlery for a picnic, or pick algae sweaters off the department store shelf. The hottest new commodities on the market, it seems, can be made from kelp.
But is seaweed any salve for climate crisis — or, at least, coming to a store supply near you? Let’s dive below the surface.
By the numbers
50%: Amount of Earth’s oxygen generated by seaweed
6-7.2 million sq km (3.7-4.5 sq mi): Estimated size of the world’s kelp forests, absorbing as much carbon as the Amazon
2,000 sq km (1,240 sq mi): Space occupied by seaweed farms in the world
1 million sq km (386,000 sq mi): Space that would need to be farmed to remove a billion tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide in a year, according to one study
2.5-13 billion tonnes: Amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide we need to capture to meet climate goals
$11.8 billion: Potential value of 10 emerging global seaweed markets by 2030, according to the World Bank
The Quartz Obsession podcast is back for Season 6!
In Seaweed: It’s always greenerGabriela Riccardi dives deep with host Heather Landy everything that macroalgae can offer usif we can use technology, creativity and good old smarts to make it work effectively.
Is seaweed any match for climate change?
Just like their land-bound cousins, marine plants use photosynthesis to capture nature’s most popular greenhouse gas: carbon dioxide, the single largest contributor to global warming.
While most plants photosynthesize with their leaves, seaweed does it with everyone of its cells, like a powerful SeaVac that sucks up and captures massive amounts of carbon. Once seaweed has locked in CO2, there’s little escape: wetsuit-wearing researchers recently discovered that seagrasses can store carbon for centuries.
Because seaweed is so efficient at sequestering carbon, a range of climate research – and funding – is investigating whether more of it can mitigate global warming. Enter seaweed farming, where macroalgae is grown as a marine crop.
Traditionally, seaweed comes from Asian nations: last year, Asia produced 98% of the world’s cultivated seaweed. Now seaweed farms are popping up around the world. They are along the coast of Maine, around Australia, and in the seas of Scandinavia; in the last decade, the world’s production has grown by almost 75%.
But some scientists urge not to rush to scale up seaweed production until all its risks have been weighed. Rushing ahead, they warn, could endanger marine habitats, cause unforeseen ocean damage, or replicate some of the problems we face with farming on land. Seaweed production is a matter for “cautious optimism,” as the United Nations puts it-emphasis on carefully.
All the goods are getting an algae update
So climate-minded aesthetics have come for kelp – and before long you may have your own seafood in your hands.
👗 Fashion ware. Algae-based textiles are coming to runway collections. One major manufacturer is Germany’s SeaCell, which harvests seaweed from Icelandic fjords every four years to produce kelp-based fiber. For now, seaweed is typically mixed with other natural fibers, such as organic cotton, to create fabric. The goal is to eventually emerge with a textile made from 100% seaweed.
🧪 Inks and dyes. Consumer dyes are high in pollutants. Against this are developers of biomaterials such as Living Ink, which specializes in black algae-based pigments, and small laboratories such as Zeefier, which extracts natural textile dyes entirely from seaweed. Shades aren’t limited to moss greens and browns either – Zeefier’s ink has also produced soft pinks and stony purples.
🐣 Diapers. Micro-sized consumers can also get a seaweed portable. Designed by Luisa Kahlfeldt in Berlin, Sumo’s collection of cloths is made from a seaweed and eucalyptus textile. Unlike most reusable diapers, they don’t use polyester or polyurethane – meaning they can actually biodegrade.
Centuries ago, a cadre of ancient conquerors slumbered under seaweed roofs. What group were they?
A. The Romans
B. The Huns
C. The Vikings
D. The Moors
Don’t doze off under a green bed just yet, the answer is at the bottom!
Place of interest
The Department of Seaweed
Julia Lohmann found her job’s future in a fish market. The Finland-based designer and researcher was conducting a residency in Sapporo, Japan when he came across ribbons of an edible seaweed, called kombu, folded in a market stall. The kombu was “beautiful, like veneer or wood,” she recalls. Perhaps, she thought, it could be used as a design material.
In 2013, Lohmann founded The Department of Seaweed, a design collective dedicated to kelpy concoctions, and began experimenting with stretching and treating seaweed to eventually replace leather and plastic. Early pieces include curved kelp collars and lace seaweed lampshades.
Today, Lohmann focuses on the assembly of large-scale structures, such as this one soaring, sculptural pavilion built with dried seaweed strips; the piece was presented at the 2020 World Economic Forum, where visitors could pause for a moment of zen (and consider protecting the climate).
Take it from me 🤿 hole!
The haenyeo, or sea women, of South Korea
On the south coast of South Korea, an age-old tradition is carried out — that of the haenyeo, the women who forage for wild seaweed and other marine life in the country’s cold, tumbling waters. The female divers dive up to 10 meters below the ocean’s surface for their harvest, all without the aid of oxygen masks—and as the practice fades, some continue their work into their late years.
Take Soon-ok Goh, a septuagenarian who has been diving since she was nine years old. Goh ventures out into the sea with bright yellow flippers and her pearly pink pocket knife, and returns with baskets of sea urchins and sea snails and kelp called myeok. “People who do this kind of work disappear,” she told The New York Times this year. “When I’m done, no one will.”
Between 2012 and 2014, Seoul-based photographer Hyung S. Kim visited the haenyeo of Jeju Island to document the sea women at work. See her portraits here.
Are you convinced to splurge on algae?
🪡 Sign me up for seaweed scarves
✏️ It’s seaweed stationery for me
⛔️ I prefer my products to be country locked
Let us know what your next big seaweed purchase will—or won’t—be.
💬 Let’s talk!
In last week’s poll about sectorsmost of you (60%) said you think there should be a gig economy services/Substack sector in the S&P 500. But 30% think “Weird crap you buy on Amazon at 2am” is the missing 12th sector.
🐤 X this!
The correct answer is C., the Vikings. In past centuries, residents on the Danish island of Læsø covered their roofs with eelgrass. Today, architects and designers likewise, look at the Viking practice of turning sea grass into contemporary building materials—no horned helmets required.