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Episode 326: the Heat Index; a Historic Climate Policy Opp

Claudia Baldwin

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This week’s run time is 44:51.

WEEK IN REVIEW (3:30)
FEATURES
A sweltering European summer (21:05)

James Murray, editor-in-chief of BusinessGreen, chats about record-breaking heat waves in the U.K. and Europe are challenging infrastructure and economies, and reshaping the dialogue about climate risk.

Cognizant CSO reflects on climate change and employee well-being (30:20)

Sophia Mendelsohn, chief sustainability officer and global head of ESG at tech services firm Cognizant, addresses the company’s broad ESG strategy and why employee well-being needs to be considered in the context of climate change.

*Music in this episode: Lee Rosevere: “Keeping Stuff Together,” “Not My Problem,” “Snakes,” “Southside.”

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To make sure you don’t miss the newest episode of GreenBiz 350, subscribe on iTunes or Spotify. Have a question or suggestion for a future segment? E-mail us at [email protected].

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Worth It: Building Demolition and Reuse

Claudia Baldwin

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This article originally appeared in our Circularity Weekly newsletter. Subscribe to the newsletter here.

Back in 2016, my grandmother’s charming, but outdated 1941-built home was being torn down. Making way for the modern trappings of new construction, its demolition — while distressing to my family — was not an uncommon fate.

Hundreds of thousands of homes in the U.S. are demolished each year, and building demolition accounts for more than 90 percent of the 600 million tons of construction-related waste generated in the country each year — a volume projected to balloon to 2.2 billion tons globally by 2025.

Considering my profession, it won’t shock you that I found discarding the materials that comprised my grandmother’s house — my mother’s childhood home — unappealing. As an avid reuser, I saw potential for reclamation.

After speaking with the new home owner who’d commissioned the teardown, I was delighted to learn that tax incentives had inspired the donation of a variety of the home’s materials. Beyond that, the owner was amenable to my carpenter brother and I salvaging additional pieces for ourselves. With hammers and pry bars in tow, a few hours of effort rewarded us with a variety of old-home goodies. Most notably: a dozen, beautiful, solid-oak doors. While we didn’t have immediate need for these wood-working relics, we saw value all the same, and dutifully stored them for future use.

As a society, we often prioritize the new over the old, ignoring the embedded value of our existing materials and doing little to reduce the barriers and complexity of reusing them.

Earlier this year — nearly seven years post-salvage — the perfect project presented itself in the renovation of my Portland, Maine apartment, originally built in 1894. Finally, an excuse to give these old doors a new home! I was delighted.

There was just one problem: Repurposing old materials is hard.

The complexity (and cost) of reclaiming

After proudly revealing my reclaimed doors to my contractor, he was quick to tell me I was taking the more expensive route. Retrofitting old doors to my apartment’s frames would require newly built door jambs — a carpentry project for a skilled worker. On top of this, seven years without temperature-controlled storage hadn’t treated the doors kindly, resulting in peeling paint, rusty hinges and other deterioration that required refurbishment.

In spite of saving material costs, additional labor made the purchase of brand-new, ready-to-hang doors the far cheaper and faster path. I was crestfallen. As I quickly learned, “salvaged” does not necessarily equate to “savings.

When it comes to a building’s end-of-life, deconstruction in lieu of demolition can send up to 85 percent less material to landfills but, thanks to additional labor, can be 80 percent more expensive.

A patchwork of reuse organizations across the nation strive to make the process as streamlined and cost-effective for consumers as possible. But as I recently heard at the Northeast Recycling Council’s Material Reuse Forum from Karen Jayne, CEO of Stardust, “it’s a tough business… building material [reuse] is often a breakeven proposition.”

Overcoming deconstruction’s hurdles

As a society, we often prioritize the new over the old, ignoring the embedded value of our existing materials and doing little to reduce the barriers and complexity of reusing them. This is all too true when it comes to buildings.

Repurposing old materials is hard.

Considering the embedded carbon of building materials will account for 50 percent of global-building sector emissions between now and 2050, prioritizing deconstruction and reuse feels essential. So what will it take to remove complexity and promote deconstruction and reuse? From where I sit, there are some thing I’d like to see more of:

More deconstruction-friendly policy could create an enabling environment that mandates reuse and removes red tape. Thankfully, from Baltimore to San Jose and beyond, a growing number of U.S. cities are enacting deconstruction policies.
More distributed organizations within the deconstruction and reuse sector could expand the market’s offerings, with the added bonus of building resilience and economic activity in local communities.
More awareness and engagement — both in the private sector and amongst the consumers and DIYers who power much of building reuse today — could help drive up demand for reused materials. (If you’re thinking of becoming a salvager yourself, here are a few pro-tips.)
More thoughtful design principles across the building sector should prioritize materials designed to be reused and buildings designed to be deconstructed.
Perhaps most important, more appreciation for the embedded costs, carbon and resources in our materials would increase their inherent value. By not acknowledging the environmental externalities of buying “new,” we’re enabling a more destructive, wasteful system.

But what happened to the doors?

At the end of the day, my inner reuser could not be quelled and I steamed ahead with the more expensive, but (in my mind) more beautiful, reclaimed doors. I strapped on my DIY belt and threw hours of elbow grease into paint removal and scraping before hiring a carpenter to help with installation.

It feels important to acknowledge this decision comes from a privileged place: One where I can afford the extra costs and have the DIY know-how to tackle parts of the project myself. But when I consider the greenhouse gas emissions embedded in these doors — not to mention my aversion to cheaper, composite materials that incur a shorter life span and emissions of their own — the extra time, energy and budget feels well worth it.

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Denim and Beyond: Huue’s Pursuit of ‘clean Color’ Dyes

Claudia Baldwin

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Biotechnology company Huue (pronounced hue) is on a mission to mimic and replicate nature‘s rainbow without the use of toxic chemicals.

“We wanted a name that would allow us to redefine how we think about color while being very simple,” Huue CEO Michelle Zhu told GreenBiz. “We thought Huue would put us on the path to being synonymous with color and reflect that we’re making color as nature intended.”

The idea for Huue, which creates non-toxic alternatives to synthetic dye for textiles, started in a lab on the University of California, Berkeley campus, where Tammy Hsu, chief scientific officer at the company, earned her Ph.D. in bioengineering.

Huue Founders Michelle Zhu (L) and Tammy Hsu (R). Image courtesy of Huue.

This was also where friendship started. Zhu’s partner is also a bioengineer and worked in the same lab at Hsu. Because of that connection, the CEO and CSO had become friends before launching their business.

The beginning of Huue

When Hsu was in graduate school, one of the first things she did was look into how plants made indigo and find the enzyme necessary to create the color. Then she engineered microbes to produce the enzyme and make indigo themselves. This process was the foundation for the way Huue operates now.

In early 2019, Hsu recognized the interest and demand for this kind of technology from fashion brands. That’s when Hsu, with her scientific expertise, and Zhu, with her business operations and strategy background, joined forces to found Huue.

Zhu grew up in a family that was in the business of textiles and apparel. Her parents started their apparel brand focused on urban streetwear segments in the late 1990s and over time expanded into all clothing categories for all genders through numerous brands.

“I would visit some of the garment manufacturing facilities on summer trips to China with my family growing up and witness the pollution first-hand, whether as particles in the air that workers had to avoid with face masks or foul-looking waterways around the factories,” she said. “These are vignettes in my mind that have made a lasting impression about the chemicals and processing required in the fashion industry.”

Before we dig into the details about Huue’s technology, here’s a brief history lesson: Until the mid-1800s, dyes were derived from natural sources. Think plants, insects and other resources that grow in nature. Then English chemist William Henry Perkin discovered one of the first synthetic dyes while experimenting with coal tar, a thick, dark liquid byproduct of coal-gas production, creating a ripple effect that led to the $11.1 billion textile dye industry of today.

“You suddenly had dyes that were a lot more affordable, and also a lot more pure and effective for industrial use,” Zhu reflected about the introduction of synthetic, petrochemical or coal-derived dyes. “But we all know, it also came with tradeoffs of environmental, and even in many cases, human health impacts.”

On the global scale, textile dyeing is one of the leading activities to cause water pollution, according to the United Nations Environment Program.

From benchtop to the supply chain

Now Huue is using synthetic biology to go back to nature with its dye production. Hsu’s research focused on how nature creates color. Huue replicates the color production process native to Indigofera, a genus of plants that include species traditionally used for dye, through its proprietary microbe programming.

“That is the generalized principle behind how we do things at Huue. We look to nature for that inspiration, whether it’s indigo blue or beet red or flamingo pink,” Zhu said.

For now, the company is focused on indigo dye, but it eventually seeks to branch out to other hues. To do this, Huue identifies and sequences enzymes from the natural resources — such as the plants used to identify enzymes to create indigo.

When the company has an enzyme of interest, one that it wants to potentially use for dye, it expresses them in the microbial strain to see if it produces the target molecule. It also makes genetic edits to the strain to see if it improves the production of the target molecule.

When it has a promising microbial strain, it grows that in a bioreactor to see how much dye molecule it produces in a bigger, more well-controlled and better-fed environment. “This is a small-scale model of what the fermentation will look like in big fermentation tanks at scale. This is very similar to step 2, except using a bioreactor to grow the cells,” Zhu said.

Huue can grow its microbes in vessels of any size — from petri dishes to processing tanks. At this point and to date, it has partnered with manufacturing facilities to run its process in tanks that are thousands of liters in volume. And it has mini replica tanks — 1 to 10 liters in size — in its Berkeley lab that it uses for R&D purposes.

After the fermentation process, it purifies the dye, which is then measured for yield and purity. Those measurements help determine how much indigo was created from the starting material and what percent of the dyestuff, an industry term for a substance that can be used as a dye when added to a solution, is indigo molecules.

Huue dye testing. Image courtesy of Huue.

Lastly, it tests the dyestuff by dipping cotton into a dye bath and squeezing it dry on a fabric padder. Then more measurements are taken to assess the fabric color, the color and wear qualities of the dyed fabric, and the dye bath itself.

“In that sense, we’re creating this no-compromise solution that is both made from renewable and cleaner inputs, but also has the kind of purity, scalability and performance metrics that the industry really needs to be able to scale and adopt this on [a mass scale],” Zhu said.

Huue has been focused on turning its benchtop development into a product that’s a one-to-one, drop-in replacement into a fashion company’s supply chain — so the manufacturers won’t have to adopt new equipment or processes in order to integrate Huue’s dyes. The company has also been preparing the process for scale, so that it can work with large manufacturing facilities “to really start to service the industry in a meaningful way,” according to Zhu.

Back in July, the company secured a $14.6 million Series A round, led by Material Impact, to launch and scale its indigo dye, which is used in denim. As of this summer, the Huue team was about 15 people strong, and Zhu expects the employee roster to grow to 25 in 2023.

“I think the ultimate goal is really servicing the demand that we’re seeing coming in from our brand community for our cleaner colors,” Zhu said.

Huue’s brand partners are under wraps but she noted that it’s “working and testing with household denim names that I think readers will know and love.”

In its work with denim companies, Huue wants to demonstrate the value of its technology as that drop-in replacement that can be just as effective as the conventional petrochemical options.

Huue isn’t the only company on a color mission. Huue and others are seeking to disrupt the market for natural textile dyes, expected to grow from $725 million in 2020 to $1.5 billion by 2026 in the United States alone. (That figure also includes dyes used in other industries, such as food and beverage and cosmetics.)

Similar to Huue, England-based Colorfix uses a biological process to replicate pigments made in nature. Earlier this year, it received an infusion of $22.6 million in a Series B round, led by Swedish fashion giant H&M, which recently came under fire for its seemingly false sustainability claims.

There’s also Recycrom, which transforms fabric textile waste fibers into a fine powder that can be used as a pigment dye for fabrics and garments, according to the company site. It recently partnered with materials science and fashion company Pangaia to launch an “Earth-friendly” capsule collection using the dyes.

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Episode 332: What the Heck Is ‘nature Tech’? a Green Building Legacy

Claudia Baldwin

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GreenBiz 350 Podcast

This week’s run time is 40:05.

IN REVIEW (5:30)
FEATURES
A legacy of green building innovation (21:25)

Meet Kath Williams, an early leader at the U.S. Green Building Council and World Building Council, and a pioneer in the field of sustainable design and construction. She’s the latest in our series of interviews with the 2022 Women in Sustainability Leadership Awards honorees.

*Music in this episode: Lee Rosevere: “And So Then,” “I’m Going for a Coffee,” “Under Suspicion,” “Southside.”

STAY CONNECTED

To make sure you don’t miss the newest episode of GreenBiz 350, subscribe on iTunes or Spotify. Have a question or suggestion for a future segment? Email us at [email protected].

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