Jalila Essaïdi Fashion designer

Making manure fashionable: “I don’t just want to conceive things; I want to put my ideas into practice.”

Michiel Walrave

With Mestic, artist/humanitarian Jalila Essaïdi is looking for innovative solutions to reduce the size of the Dutch manure mountain, while also making the fashion and paper industries more sustainable. Above all, the solutions have to be financially beneficial for all involved. ‘Cellulose can simply be extracted from our garbage.’

One of the greatest environmental problems in the Netherlands is the manure surplus. The manure produced by millions of animals from the bio-industry is polluting the earth and surface water, and is a threat to our drinking water. In addition, harmful substances in manure like ammonia, phosphates and nitrates are a major cause of the acidification and decline of our forests. While the problem has been around for years, until recently, no solutions have been found.

Essaïdi met up with policy-makers in the Province of North Brabant and representatives of the agrarian sector. She specializes in modern biotechnology and biological art. 

Everywhere in the Netherlands there are so many new ideas that just get shelved

“I was educated as an artist, but I don’t believe in pigeonholing. As soon as I’m put in a category, I immediately want to distance myself from it,” says Essaïdi. In her projects, she’s always looking for different layers and new opportunities. Not only is she the CEO of the biotech company Inspidere BV, but she’s also the founder and CEO of the BioArt Laboratories Foundation, where international top talent can access a creative hybrid laboratory.

“How can we use today’s technology to solve both minor and major world problems? I think that’s my biggest motivator,” she says. That’s why she likes to take her work outside the lab. “Everywhere in the Netherlands there are so many ideas that just get shelved. The real question is: what are you going to do with those great ideas? I don’t simply want to sit around and give my discoveries to other parties to work them out for me; as a creator I want to research practical applications and put them into practice myself.”

One of her major goals is to change the world through ecological, sustainable, synthetic fabrics, derived from manure. “I’m worried about the environment and want to work towards a cleaner world. I thought the question was interesting, and envisioned a number of opportunities. Now that I know there’s a possible solution, I want to do everything to actually implement it.”

This way of working befits her generation, she finds. “You no longer have to specialize or focus on one function; it’s very interesting to go broader. I talk to farmers about pollution associated with an intensive bio-industry, and I talk to those in the clothing industry about the pollution there. By working with the whole field, meaningful connections develop.”

If you really want to solve a problem, Essaïdi notes that you need to approach it from all sides. “All around me are plenty of people working on developing biomaterials. While this is great, they can only be successful once they involve the consumer. You need to know whether there’s a market for your product, or what incentive is needed for entrepreneurs to buy your product. Farmers for instance, would love to solve their manure problem, but in many cases, they’ve already invested in other plans, even though those often don’t work. As a creator you need to be aware of this: a farmer also needs a financial incentive to change.”

The harmful substances in manure (ammonia, phosphates, nitrates) are a major cause of the acidification and decline of our forests

Essaïdi’s best-known project is Bulletproof Skin, in which she created human skin which could halve the velocity of bullets. “I wanted to bring genetically modified goats to the Netherlands to continue my research on bulletproof skin. The goats produce synthetic silk, which could then be applied to burn wounds and pressure ulcers,” she explains. “The policy-makers told me about the manure problem, and challenged me to create a solution.”

It quickly became clear that she had found the breakthrough that was necessary. As she dissected cow manure in her laboratory, she found that the main component was cellulose: a substance full of natural fibres which can be used to create a range of materials, including paper, textile, wadding, and viscose. She envisions many opportunities in the clothing industry. “Currently, we cut down forests to produce this material, and there are many stories about young children picking cotton, while we could simply gather cellulose from our own waste products.”

At the moment, she’s working hard to get everyone involved and work towards the first scale-up. At a certain stage she’ll need to take a step back. Essaïdi may have solved the problem on paper; once everything is up and running, industry will take over. “Mestic focuses on linking and cooperation, sharing ideas to prevent disasters. After all, we’re running out of raw materials. Processing manure is an excellent solution to producing sustainable cellulose.”

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