Streetwear label Pangaia wants to sell you pollution. Literally.
The brand’s latest capsule collection features clothes and accessories emblazoned with logos that use black ink made from toxic particles. This particulate matter would otherwise contribute to global warming and harm human health. But Pangaia partnered with Graviky Labs, a startup spun out of an MIT project, to suck it out of the atmosphere and transform it into screen printing ink. This is the first time this kind of ink has been used in garments.
Creating a market for pollution
Anirudh Sharma, Graviky’s cofounder, is from India, where air pollution is a serious problem. The country is the most polluted on earth, with at least 140 million people breathing in air that is at least 10 times above the World Health Organization’s safe limits. In big cities, like Delhi and Calcutta, manufacturing plants spew tiny particles into the atmosphere, shrouding the city in a perpetual dense fog. Six years ago, when Sharma was studying at the MIT Media Lab, he began to tinker with the idea of capturing these particles and transforming them into a useful product. “It came out of the hacker culture at MIT,” says Sharma. “If there’s a problem and you look at it a little differently, you might discover huge, untapped opportunities.”
Sharma focused specifically on carbon, one of the largest sources of air pollution, which enters the atmosphere when vehicles, factories, and power plants burn fuels. When the particles are visible, you can see smoke in the air, but the more dangerous particles are those that are too tiny to perceive. These particles, which are known as PM 2.5, can get deep into a person’s lungs and bloodstream, impacting breathing and heart functions. They also linger in the atmosphere, trapping the sun’s heat and contributing to climate change. It is possible to capture these microscopic particles, but most companies don’t have the incentive to do so. Sharma believed that if this pollution became the raw material for a new product, it could create a new revenue stream. “If you create a market for this carbon—for this trash—then more carbon will be collected,” Sharma says.
He developed a process for filtering particulate matter from the atmosphere, then isolating and purifying the carbon particles, so they would be safe to use. When he collected enough particles, it created a solid mass that looked a bit like charcoal and smudged easily on paper. So he began to create solid and liquid inks, from pencils to printer cartridges. When he graduated, he launched Graviky Labs to continue developing and commercializing this ink, now called Air-Ink.
He’s since moved the company’s operations to India, where it partners with factories and vehicle operators to capture carbon emissions at the source. Graviky uses a cylindrical device it calls the Kaalink to collect the exhaust, which is then filtered to removed heavy metals and carcinogens. At the end of the process, the company is left with a black pigment that can be transformed into various kinds of ink. (Emissions from 2,500 hours of driving a standard vehicle can produce 150 liters of ink, which is enough for thousands of shirts.)
A fashionable new ink
Amanda Parkes, the chief innovation officer at Pangaia, is an alumna of the MIT Media Lab and had heard about Sharma’s work. The fashion industry uses ink extensively to create dyes and patterns on fabric, so she wanted to know how Air-Ink might work on garments.
Together, Sharma and Parkes collaborated on a version that would work in silkscreen printing, which is how patterns are applied to clothes. They found that the Air-Ink produced a black pigment that was comparable to—or better than—what Pangaia was already using. “In the fashion sector, we spend a lot of time in synthetic chemistry, using a lot of toxic chemicals, to get a black this pure,” Parkes says. “We already have this perfect black ink in nature, so why not use it instead of synthesizing something else?”
Pangaia is known for using experimental sustainable materials in its garments, including a patented new filling for down jackets made from a polymer that comes from wildflowers and corn. But it’s never easy to incorporate new materials into the fashion supply chain, she says. Not only do manufacturers need to be taught how to use them, but in some cases, the government also needs to approve them. “We’re talking about a material that doesn’t have a category because it’s so new,” says Parkes. “Fortunately, we have a team of people who have experience dealing with these regulatory bottlenecks.”
Air-Ink is currently double the price of similar black inks on the market because Graviky invested so much money developing it. But for a company such as Pangaia, the material offers an opportunity to start a conversation about fashion’s role in air pollution and climate change, and how it’s trying to address it. It plans to continue using Graviky’s ink in other products going forward. “There’s a lot of language around climate change that is very confusing,” says Parkes. “People don’t fully understand the difference between carbon dioxide and carbon particles, or what it means to sequester carbon. With this product launch, we have an opportunity to have this conversation.”
Sharma’s ultimate goal is to reduce the price of Air-Ink so that it’s competitive with other inks. He says this will take several years, but he hopes that in the meantime, the ink’s sustainability component will be a selling point for companies that want to mitigate their carbon impact. “It’s an entirely new approach to carbon capture,” he says. “We’re literally extracting carbon particles from the atmosphere and selling it to the consumer.”