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How Cocoa Beans Became a Sweet, Sustainable Material

Photo: Unsplash

When you think of cocoa beans, you likely think of the delicious sweet treat the world looks forward to post dinner (also known as chocolate). However, have you ever stopped to think about how your favorite dessert is made?

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but unfortunately, chocolate production isn’t as sweet as its result. In fact, only half of each cocoa bean is used to make food products, while the rest becomes harmful waste.

Knowing this, an Italian-Ecuadorian team of designers resolved to find a way to reduce the cocoa industry’s carbon emissions and create an innovative, biodegradable material in the process. Intrigued? Read on to learn more about how cocoa beans went from dangerous waste to a sweet, sustainable solution.


Kajkao’s creative concept for cocoa beans

The overwhelming amount of waste from cocoa beans was no secret — especially to Kajkao, a team of designers based in Italy and Ecuador.

After analyzing the data and brainstorming strategies to repurpose the ingredient, Kajkao soon discovered that cocoa beans are incredibly versatile. Their shells contain vegetal fibers that make them highly thermal and adaptable to numerous conditions. For example, they can be crushed or pressed to create lightweight panels with insulating and thermal- acoustic properties for construction purposes. Their flexibility varies depending on the size of the shell’s grain, ensuring they can easily be cut if necessary. With time, Kajkao also developed a sustainable method for producing bioplastic sheets that vary in texture, from smooth to rough, and finishes, including glossy, matte, and transparent.


But the innovation doesn’t end there. Now, the team is looking to make natural leather using cocoa beans. After all, it’s no secret that traditional cow-hide leather raises many concerns. Production requires a massive amount of energy and toxic chemicals, like formaldehyde, harming the environment, animals, and local communities as a result. Additionally, the cattle industry is responsible for deforestation and, ultimately, contributing to climate change.

In an attempt to provide a sustainable leather alternative, Kajkao continues to experiment with the durability and appearance of their cocoa beans, using the latest biotechnology to aid their efforts. Working with raw materials may pose challenges, but the Italian-Ecuadorian designers remain dedicated, extending their knowledge, network, and tools to make significant progress.

Photo: Unsplash

Additional benefits of repurposing cocoa beans

While reusing the cocoa plant’s waste yields many benefits for the environment, it also provides more financial opportunities for local cocoa farmers. Additionally, this sustainable material encourages designers to flex their creativity while expanding their eco-friendly resources to produce sustainable products.


Final thoughts

This isn’t the first time people have discovered the potential of food materials that would otherwise go to waste. For example, discarded orange peels, banana stalks, and pineapple leaves are some of the few that have gone from landfills to design boards, as they’ve been repurposed to create garments and accessories. And with cocoa beans following the same path of sustainable materials, we can rest assured that the environment looks a whole lot sweeter.

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