Don’t Underestimate Fish; You can Get Leather and Bioplastic from Their Skin and Sperm 

Challenging the fashion industry can be done in a number of ways, and according to Elisa Palomino-Perez, fish skin is one of the best choices. The artist, who’s worked with high-end designers like Christian Dior, Joh Galliano, and Moschino, first saw fish leather in 2002. It was a material made from the skin of tuna, cod, carp, catfish, salmon, sturgeon, tilapia or pirarucu which had been stretched, dried and tanned. 

Palomino-Perez said, “[Fish skin] was such an incredible material. It was kind of obscure and not many people knew about it, and it had an amazing texture. It looked very much like an exotic leather, but it’s a food waste. I’ve got a bag from 2002 that, with time, has aged with a beautiful patina.” 

A novelty? 

Fish leather is actually not a new type of leather, indigenous groups from Alaska to Scandinavia to Asia have used this material for centuries. Icelandic fishing traditions. It’s just that it doesn’t preserve well in the archaeological record and often marked as a cheap material due to the abundance of fish as a resource. 

“For the past four years, I have been traveling all around the world, connecting all these incredible elders, all these Indigenous people—the Ainu on Hokkaido Island in Japan, the Inuit, Alutiiq and Athabaskan in Alaska, the Hezhen in Northeast China, Sami in Sweden and Icelanders—and studying different technology of fish skin,” said Palomino-Perez. 

Ainu people in Japan have traditionally used salmon skin for boots. Similarly, the Inuit, Alutiiq, and Athabaskan in Alaska have used the skin for mittens, parkas, and clothing. Other than functionality, this material also held spiritual significance with the afterlife and water deities. Some communities believe that people must cross a river from this world to the next after death. 

Fish skin tradition, however, declined in the 20th century due to assimilation and changing policies or laws that affected Indigenous groups. Only recently that fish skin has seen a resurgence, and Indigenous peoples’ fishing traditions, which had been banned before, has begun to make a return. 

Anthropologist and Arctic archaeologist Stephen Loring said, “Here’s something from the past, it pretty much had been forgotten, and yet, it’s now being revived and has tremendous socially and environmentally laudable goals.” 

 

traditional fishskin jacket of the Nanai people. Photo by Rolfmueller Wikimedia Commons

 

Clothing made from fish 

Hakai Magazine stated that in 2015, humans all over the world consumed a little under 150 million tons of filleted fish. A ton of filleted fish equals to 40 kilograms of fish skin; so within that year alone, the industry produced about six million tons of skins that could have been recycled. 

Commercial fish leather available today comes from sustainable farms operating in the same areas as tanners, who remove any excess meat off the fish skin and use tree bark, like Mimosa bark, to stretch, tan and dry the skin, as has been done in traditional processes. Farms that provide fish fillets to consumers in frozen form supply tanners with their fish skin byproduct. Meaning, getting the material isn’t something complicated. 

Well-known brands such as Prada, Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, and Puma have used fish leather for clothes and accessories. Nowadays, younger designers have shown their interest, and Palomino-Perez is trying to normalize the practice, starting from her own designs.  

Palomino-Perez sources her fish skin from Iceland, then designs, dyes, and assembles her fashion accessories. She works with a traditional indigo dyeing master in Japan, Takayuki Ishii, who grows the flowering plant, to dye her fish skin with stencils. 

Fish skin is generally considered food waste. There are people who eat fish skin, of course, but mostly it gets discarded into the ocean. From 1961 to 2016, the global per capita consumption of fish has grown from nine kilograms to a little over 20 kilograms a year, resulting in loads more discarded skin that could have a second life. 

According to the Smithsonian magazine, fish leather is pricier and takes longer to process compared to cow leather. But it’s more durable, breathable, and resistant. This leather can divert attention away from endangered species used for fashion as well. 

Sustainable practice with fish leather 

Palomino-Perez doesn’t only push for more sustainability in fashion with her fish leather clothes or accessories. She also works to make her designs more sustainable. For example, she has studied a tanning technique from the Indigenous Hezhen community in Northeastern China that uses cornflower to soak in and remove the fish skins’ oils to create leather 

The Hezhen community’s way is an improvement from other tanning methods that can release harmful chemicals that pollute the air. Moreoer, she’s planning to develop ways to 3-D print with filaments made from tuna waste, instead of plastic, with the help of University of Borås in Sweden. 

She also has organized Zoom workshops led by Alutiiq Indigenous elder June Pardue along with museum curators to train and teach individuals, like tanning artists, fashion students and other Indigenous people, the fish-crafting process. 

Palomino-Perez hopes that fish skin will replace exotic skins in fashion. She believes that reducing natural and detailed items in a respectful way and without chemicals or harm toward the environment is the future.  

 

Plastic from fish? 

Other than leather, we can get plastic alternative from fish—but not from their scales, rather, it’s from an unlikely source: salmon sperm. 

Researchers in China have designed a plastic-like material that forms when two short strands of salmon DNA are combined with another chemical derived from vegetable oil. The result is similar to a hydrogel, a gel-like squishy substance.  

After they freeze-dry the material to remove any moisture, they mold the hydrogel into different shapes. The researchers have already created puzzle pieces, a cup, and a plastic DNA model from the material using a process they call aqua-welding.  

Compared to traditional plastic, this DNA-based bioplastic uses 97% fewer carbon emissions to make. As we all know, conventional, oil-based plastics require a lot of heat and additional substances, leading to a hardy and sometimes toxic material that break down in hundreds of years. 

Since plastics marketed as recyclable don’t usually end up being recycled and instead thrown into landfills or incinerated anyway, comes the question about how this new bioplastic can be circular or not as damaging to the planet. 

According to the study, we can recycle the bioplastic by adding DNA-digesting enzymes that can break the material down. If there’s no available enzymes, we can dunk this plastic into water, turning it back into a slop of hydrogel.  

 

The skin/scale of an Atlantic salmon. Photo by CSIRO Wikimedia Commons

 

Limitations of this material—at least for now 

You may be thinking that this new plastic wouldn’t be appropriate to contain drinks or hold liquid—which is what plastic is used for. And that’s the downside of this new type of bioplastic. More research and experiments are needed to turn this fish sperm-derived plastic into something that’s the exact equivalent to petroleum-based plastic. 

Nonetheless, the researchers believe that this is the most sustainable material they know right now, compared to other known plastics. According to them, other biodegradable bioplastics from algae, cornstarch, sawdust still leave behind a small carbon footprint over their lifetime.  

There’s still a debate about which material for bioplastic is the most eco-friendly one. But let’s just look at the positive side here: there will be more environment-friendly bioplastics that we can enjoy in the future. 

If you want to read details about this bioplastic, you may be able to read it in the Journal of the American Society which you can access here (https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/jacs.1c08888). 

 

Sources:

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/does-fish-skin-have-future-fashion-180977931/ https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/eco-friendly-material-made-from-salmon-sperm-may-curb-plastic-waste-180979164/  

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