In 1991, the European Union Urban Wastewater Directive was passed in an effort to moderate the discharge of domestic and industrial wastewater into the environment. In 2013, the Netherlands was one of only three EU member states to fully comply with the collection and treatment processes of the directive, together with Austria and Germany. Today, the Dutch are going a step further with that very wastewater: re-using the treatment by-product as a natural resource, one that is also effective as a design material.

The Dutch Water Authorities – much less ominous than the name might imply – credit the Netherlands’ everlasting ‘struggle against water’ as a reason for their expertise in water management. The Energy and Raw Materials Factory, an initiative of the Dutch water boards, recognised the re-use potential of Kaumera, the name given to a material extracted from sludge granules in the Nereda® water purification process. The material is a biopolymer formed from bacteria, similar to an alginate with the unique ability to both repel water and retain it – take that, oil.

Kaumera means chameleon in Dutch, and it is this ability to change form that inspires the name

My conversation with the designer Nienke Hoogvliet began appropriately with a Dutch lesson: cleverly, she explained that Kaumera means chameleon in Dutch, and it is this ability to change form that inspires the name. That range of shape-shifting transcends semiotics: the market for a material such as Kaumera has been in discussion since 2016, but the Dutch Water Authorities brought on Hoogvliet to explore just how versatile it could be. Previously, the organization had been working with corporations and the Delft University of Technology to position Kaumera’s industrial utility. So, with two factories opening next year especially dedicated to reclaiming the material, they naturally wanted to maximise the opportunity.

With Studio Billie van Katwijk and Studio Jeroen Wand as collaborators, Studio Nienke Hoogvliet set out to present projects centered around Kaumera to the public at Dutch Design Week 2018. Hoogvliet researched Kaumera’s application in the textile industry, creating a tie-dye-nouveau kimono dyed from pigments with a Kaumera base. The pigments, Anammox and Vivianite, also derive from wastewater, creating a garment that seems to erupt with its own biology. Bio-Binding by Jeroen Wand highlights the possibilities of using pure Kaumera as a glue: it’s a necessary element in connecting material, but Wand pushes that further by highlighting its aesthetic properties. Mudernism by Billie van Katwijk uses the material as a ceramic glaze: her project pays homage to the ancient craft of pottery specific to the Netherlands.

‘Kaumera smells a bit,’ said Hoogvliet. [Laughs] ‘It was quite challenging for me to work with it at first, because it’s such a new material that the water authorities themselves or TU Delft don’t know everything about it. Sometimes, we would have very simple questions they didn’t have the answer to. But it was also very nice, of course: you have a lot of freedom to explore new things that can be interesting to them as well.’

The freedom she mentioned posed an obvious question: How would the Kaumera exhibition translate into future interior projects? Hoogvliet reminded me of the factories. ‘Because they are building them now, they will also need interiors. They’re trying to make the interiors as much from wastewater as possible – as circular as possible. With this, I think we’re really going to see how we can upscale the design processes for this location – then, hopefully for other interiors and industries.’

With a variety of options on the metaphorical menu of new design materials, it’s easy to speculate on how this will potentially affect the design industry and what our things are made of. Society first saw an industrial revolution, then a technological revolution; now, it seems like we are at the gates of a resource revolution. It is projects like Kaumera that make it painstakingly clear that success never came without teamwork – to implement large-scale creation from by-products, it’s obvious that designers need to leave their studios and attack innovation from a multi-disciplinary standpoint. Earth is bogged down by waste, yes, but in our desperate attempts to siphon optimism from this reality, we can also keep looking forward – to the sewers, to the sky – and realise that this must mean that we are also inundated by material with which to create.

Kaumera was on show during Dutch Design Week 2018 at the Veem building on floor 2.