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Plant waste used for the extraction of colors: new machine gives scraps another purpose

«It’s a multi-step, proprietary process that gives us the colors we need and then, in the end, we get this biomass that can be used for fertilizer and biofuels» – Nicole Stjernswärd, designer

KAIKU machine’s concept

«We are taking the waste parts of plants, like peels or seeds, from farms at large scale. We’re using food scrap that would be otherwise thrown away. It’s a multi-step, proprietary process that gives us the colors that we need and then, in the end, we get this biomass that can be used for fertilizer and biofuels. What it’s good about it is that we are creating value while not adding an additional strain to agricultural land that’s overworked. The colors themselves can fade over time, depending on how they are treated or what materials you mix with them. Some would say this isn’t ideal, and that color should be long-lasting, but I question the idea of ‘forever’ color. We should appreciate instead the beauty of something temporary that doesn’t last forever, and we should celebrate that, after the use of a product, we can throw it in the compost pile without causing harm to the environment». This is the concept behind the KAIKU machine, invented by designer and entrepreneur Nicole Stjernswärd.

KAIKU’s color production from scraps

Following Circular Economy principles, which is giving new life to products instead of discarding them, Stjernswärd is suggesting another method to get colors from scrap food, such as avocado seeds, onion peels, beetroots and lemons. «The color we extract comes from a living thing, and that’s the main difference if compared to conventional color made in a laboratory or manufactured from synthetic elements. Those colors are treated like a pixel in a screen, where you just pick a color with no story behind it. On the other hand, if you look at people like Leonardo da Vinci, he created colors that were extracted from local plants and soil and they had a provenance, a meaning behind them. They were derived from the earth and incredibly unique.». Stjernswärd mentioned there was a story behind the name KAIKU: «It’s a Finnish word, as my grandmother is Finnish and she came up with that name, and it means ‘Echo’. My idea behind it was that since we are taking plant waste, KAIKU is an echo of what that plant used to be in the past». There’s a recurring theme of regeneration, of things coming back to life in another form.

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The KAIKU Machine


KAIKU’s project history

«The machine was born out of a desire for a change», continued Stjernswärd, and the project started at the Royal College of Art of in London, where she was studying at the time. «The fact that triggered my desire to start looking into color manufacturing was that I developed a very bad allergic reaction to some make up that I had bought at the time, and for a whole month my whole face was swollen and it was a very painful thing and I was trying to find what was causing it. I started to interview artists and painters and even just walking around art shops, and I realized that color is a thing that no one is investigating, thatthat most people everyone is takingtake for granted. Color is treated like it has been divorced from the individual, and artists have no control very little agency over it anymoretoday. It was that desire to find out why it is not considered and elevated like it once was andwas and talking to artists and textile designers about the frustrations that people felt. It was me trying to figure out a way to bring color back to the individuals and make it ourselves».

The technology used by KAIKU for color extraction

KAIKU’s color proprietary extraction technique mimics artisanal dyeing methods for both the respect of raw materials and the use of a knowledge that might have been forgotten by industry. «The technology that we’re using has been adopted by other industries but, in addiction, we’re combining principles that belonged to our ancestors. We’re creating a way to operate that is it’s not harming our planet. We are trying to bring mindfulness to manufacturing, instead of creating the same thing a thousand times. Our philosophy is to create bespoke materials,l like fine wine. There are a few other brands that that are pushing the material sourcing, making sure that the color is made locally by people who are paid a living wage are already there, but the industry as a whole, has been slow to innovate.  on whole has an average that it’s slow to innovate». These methods have stopped being used over the centuries due to the  industrialization and the introduction of inexpensive synthetic pigments derived from petrochemicals.

«Color is being mass manufactured at giant scales in faraway places» explained Stjernswärd. «There is very little transparency within the supply chain and there is vague information on how the color has been made, or who made it. For example, some mineral-based pigments are mined in countries with few protections or safety standards for workers. For us, the goal is to really be mindful and put pride into what we make so that you can source every material, you know where it came from, what plant it was from,  and who made it for you. The huge thing for us is also the sustainability issue, it’s our top concern. For us, sustainability is a moving target: you can reach a certain standard, or you could push those standards forward. The goal at the moment is to make plant-based color; later we would want all of the ingredients that we use to be ethically sourced and sustainable, and for the longer-term goal we would want all of the waste that we have to come from farms that use regenerative agriculture».

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KAIKU machine’s powder collector

KAIKU’s future plans

In terms of competition, KAIKU sees other like-minded firms as allies on a path towards responsible manufacturing. There are other businesses out there that share similar values and goals and she hopes they can work together to reach those same sustainability standards. «In the future» explained Stjernswärd when asked about working with other partners «everything we’ll do will be like a coalition with people around the globe working together trying to achieve the same thing. There are huge ambitions when it comes to sustainability, and we couldn’t reach them if we did it all by ourselves. The goal is to find other businesses that share similar values and partner with them, like farmers and local artisans». Although KAIKU is still working on scaling towards mass production, as told by Stjernswärd in an in-depth conversation about potential commercial applications, they’re now thinking about expanding to cosmetics. «We are currently waiting to get the certifications that we need» continued Stjernswärd. «We need to be much more stringent in this regard because it is in close contact with the human body. Producing for the beauty industry will have the same principles for us [as in textiles] but we need to include a few extra steps to make sure that the ingredients are pure and safe enough to be put on the skin. We also want our packaging to be recyclable. Our idea is to have the packages to be sent back to us once the product is empty, so we could clean it and re-use it or mix it back together with other packages to give it another life. We’re going to try different materials to see what works. This will be an interesting journey for us, but we’re already seeing a positive shift in the beauty industry and in consumer demands. Change is happening and we’re optimistic that the sustainable solutions for how we manufacture things are finally being realized».

IMAGE GALLERY

Nicole Stjernsward is the founder of KAIKU and holds an MSc and MA in Innovation Design Engineering from Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art. KAIKU creates sustainable colorants derived from plant waste. The colors in most consumer products, such as cosmetics, clothes, and paints are derived from petrochemicals and as the research for environmentally sound materials continues, pigments are due for a change.

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