Production: From fibre to fabric
Design process and prototypes
Sealable roll-top bag to store clean and carry dirty diapers
SeaCell is a biodegradable, absorbent and antibacterial fibre made from eucalyptus and algae extracts. In collaboration with a renowned textile institute, I developed the first functional 100% SeaCell fabric and created a sustainable cloth diaper for babies.
Disposable diapers are the third largest single item contributor to landfills - in the EU alone, 17 million diapers are disposed of each day. Composed of a mix of cellulose fibres, super-absorbing polymers, and synthetic fabrics, a diaper takes up to 500 years to decompose. Disposable diapers also contain potentially harmful chemicals and toxins that have been linked to causing serious skin conditions, diaper rash and recently even cases of cancer. This observation inspired me to re-engineer this everyday product and design a 100% mono-material SeaCell diaper that fully utilises the materials inherent skin protection and hygiene properties.
Every diaper is constructed of three distinct layers, each performing a separate task. The inner layer sits directly next to the babies skin and has to be very soft and absorbent. The next layer is the absorbing core of the diaper, where the moisture is soaked up. With its distinct properties (the incredible softness in both wet and dry state as well as its extreme absorbency) SeaCell is a uniquely suitable material to be used for both these layers. The last layer of the diaper has to be waterproof and prevent any liquids from leaking out. In order to achieve this, I collaborated with Swiss brand Schoeller, who developed a material innovation called EcoRepel, which is a waterproofing technology that is environmentally friendly and biodegradable. By impregnating SeaCell with EcoRepel, it withstands abrasion and repeated machine washings, making it a durable and sustainable alternative to the laminated polyester fabrics that are conventionally used.
Having researched and analysed the whole market of cloth diapers, it became evident that they are not necessarily much more sustainable or skin-caring, mainly due to their construction and materials. Most cloth diapers are made up of a mix of up to five different materials, where the absorbing fabrics are usually permanently laminated with polyester or polyurethane. Additionally, nearly all cloth diapers use nylon hook and loop tape or plastic snap buttons that are impossible to remove later on. Therefore my first prototypes explored ways to create a diaper that was fit for deconstruction, and thus improve recyclability. I explored a modular construction where the velcro tape or buttons sit on a separate belt. Another challenge was to find a replacement for the stretchy parts of the diaper which until now could only be achieved by using a synthetic elastic band. I prototyped several ways the textile could be more flexible and grow with the child, such as the idea of using a drawstring in the leg area of the diaper that can be pulled tight and loosened depending on need. In the end, I utilised a material innovation called Natural Stretch, which is an innovative method of knitting natural yarns in order to give them up to 20% natural elasticity, without the use of synthetic yarns.
A conventional cloth diaper consist of both natural and synthetic fibres, permanently bonded together and thus making it nearly impossible to take apart and recycle. The Sumo diaper is the very first mono-material diaper on the market. In the world of textile sustainability, mono-materiality is considered the ideal product concept for recyclability. Once the product enters the recycling stream it can be mechanically recycled without waste, extra handling, time or cost. This makes the Sumo diaper desirable on both an ecological and economical level. In terms of design and aesthetics, it was important to me to emphasize the purity and naturalness of this diaper, something that is rather unique in the world of diapers.
Both the DITF (German Institutes of Textile and Fiber Research), with whom I prototyped the first batch of SeaCell fabric, and Schoeller Technologies, have expressed their interest in further collaborating and developing this project. A next step would be to find investment, that would give me the financial support to develop and produce a more refined fabric, tailored for this specific use scenario. I strongly believe that this project has the potential to have a positive impact on the environment and represent a social and financial benefit for families.
I won the BG Sustainable Development Award, by the Swiss-based Engineering consultancy, which honoured my project for its expertise in the entire marketing chain: materials, production, design, communication. I also won a Vitra Special Award for this project, nominated by Nora Fehlbaum, CEO of Vitra.