The distinguished members of the Connecticut chapter of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists (bet you didn't even know we had a chapter here) will be gathering this September to hear about seaweed.
Connecticut seaweed to be exact. The kind of seaweed that can be used in all sorts of cosmetics, from lip gloss to "butter body cream." The kind of seaweed that could potentially rev up a whole new industry in this state.
The dude they'll be listening to is Connecticut's seaweed guru, Professor Charles Yarish. His talk will be entitled "Nutrient Bioextraction: Opportunities for Nutrient Management and Economic Development in Long Island Sound and Coastal New England," but all it really boils down to is locally grown seaweed.
Yarish says he's going to be pushing the idea that Connecticut's cosmetics manufacturers shouldn't really have to import the seaweed they use in their products from France or somewhere in Asia. Not when this state has already opened up what Yarish hopes will be the first of many seaweed farms along its shoreline.
"I want to get them to understand what's under their noses," says Yarish, who has been studying seaweed and its potential uses for decades at the University of Connecticut, where he is professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.
What's under their noses is kelp. "There is a whole suite of compounds that come from kelp," Yarish points out, compounds that are both potentially valuable to seaweed farmers and desirable for the cosmetic companies that use them.
Connecticut's General Assembly just passed legislation that sets up a state regulatory and inspection process that will make commercial cultivation and sale of seaweed possible.
Seaweed is like some do-gooder's dream plant. The list of different types of things you can use it for is freakish: human food, animal food, fertilizer, biofuel, and cosmetics.
It doesn't need the sort of environment-destroying crap that commercial land crops require (pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers). It doesn't require tons of fresh water like corn or soybeans or wheat. In fact, seaweed can actually extract a lot of those excess agricultural and lawn fertilizers that are getting washed into the Sound, where they screw up the ecosystem.
In Scotland, Norway and some other places, people and governments are all whipped up over the idea of harvesting tons of seaweed for use as biofuel.
Unlike the corn used to make ethanol, turning seaweed into fuel won't push up the costs of human food around the world. Experts point out that food-corn prices are rising because so much corn is now being used for fuel.
It seems like a terrific idea, but Yarish doesn't think it's the right thing to try for Connecticut seaweed farming.
"That's the lowest hanging fruit," he says of using seaweed for biofuel; he believes the limited sort of seaweed farming that will be possible along Connecticut's coast should concentrate only on the highest possible value crops.
Seaweed farming along the Sound will have to be limited because our congested shoreline is being used for all sorts of other things, including fishing, boating, and clam and oyster beds. "Our coastal waters have so many competing uses," says Yarish.
So Connecticut seaweeders need to concentrate on things with high potential value like human food and, yes, cosmetics. "We should be looking at maximizing the value of the commodity we're producing," is Yarish's theory.
The first use of high-quality Connecticut seaweed is likely to be for human food, and the state's first farm, off Branford's Thimble Islands, is already getting ready to start selling.
And then, says Yarish, there are cosmetics.
According to the U.N.'s Fisheries and Aquaculture Department, "Extract of seaweed is often found on the list of ingredients on cosmetic packages, particularly in face, hand and body creams or lotions."
It can be sold in sachets as something you put in bathwater. It can be ground up and used as a paste in "thalassotherapy" (where you get it spread all over your body to restore the skin's natural beauty and suppleness and, uh, well, you get the idea). It can be used in massage creams, face masks, shampoos, body gels, and do-it-yourself body-wrap kits.
The guy who invited Yarish to speak to Connecticut's cosmetic chemists is John Mahon, the president of this state's chapter.
Mahon is a chemist at Zotos International, a Darien-based cosmetics company. He says it's his understanding that Zotos does bring in some seaweed products from outside the U.S. "We do have a relationship with a French supplier," Mahon says.
But he's intrigued by the idea of locally grown Connecticut seaweed, and that led to the invitation for Yarish to speak at the society's annual scientific seminar.
(Just in case you're interested, it's at Giovanni's in Darien on Sept. 17. Cocktails start at 5 p.m., dinner is at 6:15, and Yarish's talk is supposed to start at 7 o'clock. Word of warning: you need to register and there is a fee involved.)
Yarish isn't kidding around about this. He says he's "already done the analysis" and has "already designed proposals" for the best uses for Connecticut seaweed.
After one rather lengthy riff on the business possibilities of seaweed in this state, Yarish pauses and laughs, perhaps recognizing that he wasn't exactly sounding like a disinterested academic researcher.
"I have to be realistic," Yarish explains. And he's absolutely convinced that it's realistic to think selling Connecticut seaweed to the cosmetics industry can provide "new markets for our future farmers in our coastal waters."