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Desalination – reducing the concerns over freshwater availability

The debate surrounding the availability of land for agriculture; farmers have not been educated on how to build circularity and sustainability into their practices. Salty & Co, a case study

Only 3 percent of the world’s water is freshwater and only 1 percent of that is drinkable. This finite resource is shared by 7.5 billion people around the world, and one in ten of those struggles to access this human right. This increasing water scarcity has encouraged companies to push towards desalination processes. Since the development of desalination facilities in the 1960s, there are more than 15,000 plants globally. Each day 100 million gallons of seawater are pushed through semi-permeable membranes to create 50 million gallons of water and it is expected that this quantity will be on the increase.

There are two types of commonly-used desalination processes. The less frequently used of the two is thermal, a process which involves the heating and cooling of seawater, allowing freshwater to form and be collected, through condensation. The more widely used method industrially in desalination plants, is reverse osmosis which involves pumping seawater through a semipermeable membrane which blocks the larger salt particles and allows the water molecules through. Whilst desalination plants are becoming more efficient, they are energy-intensive to run (using fossil fuels in their energy production) and produce brine (which has a high salt concentration) as a waste product. Currently 48 percent of U.S. desalination facilities dispose of their concentrate to surface waters. As the waste brine is denser than seawater, as it is released back into the ecosystem, it sinks to the seafloor to disrupt the biodiversity in the area. Brine is not just high-salinity runoff, it can contain heavy metals and chemicals which are harmful for the environment. 

Initially it was thought that brine made up a small quantity of waste, yet new research has found that global production is 50 percent higher than previous estimates, totalling 141.5 million cubic meters a day, compared to the 95 million cubic meters of freshwater output. With numbers this high, it is important to harness this waste and not allow it to make its way back into the sea, instead «to work with the salinized environment that we already have as opposed to trying to change our environment». SaltyCo, an initiative using salt-water resistant plants, has come up with a way to reduce water consumption in one of the highest consumption industries: textile. Julian from SaltyCo believes that «the fashion industry has a responsibility to change the systematic abuse of resources to supply our Western world that produces clothing at an unsustainable rate»

The concept of developing a textile produced from salt-tolerant plants grown using seawater, came to light when Julian Ellis-Brown, Neloufar Taheri, Finlay Duncan and Antonia Contreras from the Royal College of Art, came together for a group research course. Their aim was to create ‘Freshwater Free Fabrics’ using area specific plants grown on salinized planes to harvest and extract their fibres to be turned into textile products, using pre-existing production methods. «Our concept works around reducing our freshwater consumption around the world which is an overly consumed resource. We decided to look into how we could reduce freshwater consumption around the world by the underused saline agriculture. What that enables us to do is to grow salt-tolerant plants by irrigating them with sea water, before extracting their fibres to make a series of textiles». SaltyCo is the first company to develop a completely ‘Freshwater Free Fabric’ relying solely on their saltwater resistant crops and now has three products in various stages of development. Their entry fabric, which is ready to be produced as a pilot, is warm, lightweight and hydrophobic stuffing able to emulate the function and comfort of down. The team have also been working on a non-woven felt and yarns for a woven linen-like fabric that they expect to introduce to their customers once their stuffing has been released. From fiber to material, SaltyCo has to ensure that their fibres can be used efficiently in traditional production methods. For their woven fabric, the extraction method must create fibres with flexural and tensile strength to be suitable for working with spinning machines and looms. Their non-woven fibers have to be compatible with air-laying and heat pressing machines to ensure fabrics that meet the high standards of their potential clients. And these are expectations that the team have been able to meet. The potential of these materials is endless; insulated jackets, faux leather, t-shirts and trousers, all of which can be cruelty-free and sustainable. (Data and more precise references are not here yet to be disclosed by the team, since the project is still on a experimental status – editor’s note)

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salt-tolerant plants grown in freshwater-free

Turning salinized land into a resource that does not need to be drained to create freshwater, instead used to grow crops. This reduces the strain on the environment and helps maintain local biodiversity. Removing water from saline land (to be converted into fresh water) can have an impact on the land; «irrigating land over time, through water evaporation, there becomes a build-up of salt in the soil». This high salt content from farming practices and brine off-run can cause species death. To reverse this degradation in biodiversity, using salt-tolerant plants on pre-existing land can help with the uptake of salt so that this «valuable land can be used to grow food, and for much longer with much more beneficial purposes». SaltyCo relies on the use of halophytes (plants that grow in saline conditions), which have been shown to «offset localised salinity level in the soil which allows you to grow glycophytes (freshwater loving plants) nearby. This means that we can introduce a new supply chain, but also continue to supply the old supply chains with localized crops as well»

A shift towards plant-based materials is necessary for environmental sustainability: however, there is debate surrounding the availability of land for agriculture. Currently, more than 60 percent of the world’s population relies on agriculture for survival; across the world, current land capacity is struggling to feed these numbers. «One of the reasons that we have not yet shifted from petroleum-based products is that there is this worry that we will not have enough good farmland to grow what we need to, and adequate water supply for irrigation». By using saline land that has little use in terms of agriculture, and irrigating crops with abundant seawater, there is chance to move beyond this problem and add value to this otherwise unusable land. Finlay expects that their saltwater plants have a greater opportunity for environmental change «We are able to start to mitigate some of the larger effects of climate change, through the specific plants that we are using. They not only have a high capacity for carbon sequestering, but they are able to benefit the land in situ by stabilizing the soil for flood resistance and preventing land from becoming saline in the future. The plants themselves are able to give back to the soil, depositing nutrients and supporting biodiversity in the area».

Their approach is context specific, «we have had to pinpoint areas where freshwater is scarce, but also areas where textile supply chains already exist so we can make educated and targeted decisions as to where we place our process plants to make the biggest impact to local communities and to the global environment as well». SaltyCo has been working with Yanik Nyeburg from Seawater Solutions to focus on introducing saltwater crops and sustainable farming practices to a specific region. Their goal is to target the specific species of saltwater tolerant crops to the area that they are developing this agriculture in. «Yanik’s role in relation to SaltyCo is to assist us in the piloting and experimenting of our crops in multiple soil types and locations at scale». Through their encouragement of farming practices in situ, the team are able to focus on utilising the land in a specific area and can address communities that need this infrastructure the most. The largest consumers of desalinated water are in the Middle East, which uses approximately 70 percent of worldwide capacity, and North Africa, which uses about 6 percent, yet with climate, more countries are becoming at risk. «Bangladesh, for example, is in a position where a million hectares of land are becoming saline each year; mainly of farm land and rice fields. This increase in saline land is reducing the yield year on year that farmers are able to take from their crops, putting pressure on their food supplies. What we are able to do is harness that land, use the brackish and saline groundwater in order to produce crops that can be used in our textile production. Farmers are still able to create a revenue stream and they have had to diversify their crops»

SaltyCo hopes to put the farmers at the centre of their work as «one of the problems in the current type of agriculture is that farmers have not been educated on how to build sustainability into their farming practices. What that has meant is that we have overwatering, large amounts of evaporation, and introduction of chemicals into farming practices which has resulted in much more saline lands on top of climate change». They believe in the importance of education, and recognize that, as a company they are also learning. «By us placing transparency at the heart of the supply chain, we have a privilege to build something that has transparency from the start and education throughout. That will enable us to understand how to keep our supply chain sustainable, how to make sure that the lands that we are farming are not becoming more salinized. We are able to look at ways to protect arable lands that we still have left from that salinity increase, and economically this will benefit us in the long run as it is in our interest to protect arable lands and provide value for saline lands without damaging the environment further». Through working with farmers, and working towards education of both consumer and industry, they are able to reinvent the ways in which each group interacts. «We are building this into our supply chain, whether it is shortening our supply chain to make it easier for our clients, but also making sure that the farmers are benefiting from this. We are making sure that it is reliable, based on where we are growing it, and making sure that supply will be reliable regardless of the season and making sure that the quality is high across. A lot of our plan is going to be in educating farmers and developing partnerships through our supply chain. This is why we were keen in being involved in the agriculture side of things».
SaltyCo hopes to reimagine the way that saltwater is used across the globe, creating a form of agriculture that does not rely on scarce freshwater. Instead, they intend to educate on the value of salinized land and harness it in a mutually beneficial way. «It is a key part of the role that SaltyCo is going to play in the future for the industry that we are going to be building with like-minded people. It is going to be a new Green Economy. If our long-term aim is going to work, our farmers need reasons to grow saltwater tolerant crops, so we need to create this demand to bring value for everyone involved».


SaltyCo was formed at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London on a postgraduate masters called Innovation Design Engineering.
The program enabled the formation of a team that understands the importance of taking responsibility for a more sustainable, less wasteful world.