The soles on a new pair of sneakers from a startup called Blueview look like they are made of ordinary polyurethane foam. But the material, which took more than six years to develop, is partly based on algae, unlike the typical fossil-fuel foam. The shoe’s upper uses what the company says is the first 3D knit sneaker material made entirely from plants. And when the sneakers are worn out, they are proven to fully biodegrade in a backyard compost bin or even in the ocean.
Blueview CEO Stephen Mayfield, a professor of molecular biology at the University of San Diego, originally researched converting algae into fuel but later changed course. “It just occurred to me that we would never make biofuel from algae because that’s the lowest value for the product,” he says. “Fuel is always the cheapest commodity. And I just wonder, why are we spending all this time making these wonderful oils from seaweed and then burning them in a car?”
Just as algal oil can be used to replace petroleum in fuels, it can also replace fossil fuels used to make synthetic materials. This has several advantages, starting with the fact that fossil fuel production is a major source of climate emissions, while algae absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow. Mayfield, a surfer, began by demonstrating that it was possible to make a surfboard out of algae-based foam. He then connected with Tom Cooke, a shoe executive, and they decided to partner up to launch a new shoe brand that would use the material in soles.
The industry was already moving toward sustainability, “but I didn’t think it would accelerate as fast as it needed to,” says Cooke. “And there was still a lot of focus on shareholders versus the planet.” As a fellow surfer, what motivated him was the problem he saw every time he got in the water: an ocean full of plastic. Although shoes don’t end up in the sea as often as, for example, plastic bottles, they are another part of the global waste problem; and their production is also part of the enormous ecological footprint of the fashion industry.
Some other shoe brands use rubber, a natural material, for soles. But rubber is processed in such a way that it cannot be easily broken down. “Rubber tires that were made for the Model A in 1903 are still here today,” Mayfield says. “They haven’t gone anywhere and will still be here 300 years from now.”
To create the new soles, Mayfield and a team of researchers began by molding a combination of bio-based and petroleum-based materials into a form that microorganisms could easily break down at the molecular level. (The sole is 52% bio-based.) He points out that traditional synthetic foam could also be engineered to break down more easily, but when it was developed, “people thought, let’s make materials that last forever.” , he says. Now designers are beginning to realize that materials should only last as long as the products that contain them – if a shoe lasts a few years, the sole shouldn’t last hundreds of years.
After they had a material that was proven to be biodegradable, scientists began work on the complicated process of creating a foam that meets commercial specifications for shoes. One of the biggest challenges was a compression test that measures how the foam springs back after 100,000 kicks. “Formulating to get that bounce and bounce to where it keeps coming back to the same size was actually the most painful part of the process,” Mayfield says. The material also had to strike the right balance to be completely durable for use in a shoe and can easily break at the end of the shoe’s lifespan. It took years to get this foam right.
The upper was also a challenge. The founders wanted to knit the shoe to reduce the waste created by cutting material. But other companies with 3D knit shoes use synthetic yarn; When the team first started experimenting with biodegradable, plant-based yarn, they struggled to get it to work in knitting machines without tearing or breaking. They eventually landed on a combination of materials – hemp and eucalyptus yarn – and devices that worked.
It would have been easier to mix in a small percentage of synthetic material, but they chose to keep fighting for 100% vegetable yarn. (As founders, they say, they could keep going when another company might have decided to compromise.) Designers also had to experiment with multiple patterns for the knit, since natural materials don’t have the same stretch as some synthetic yarns. A typical shoe development process can have 3 pattern changes; Blueview made 10 changes for their first pair of sneakers.
Every element of the shoe is proven to be fully biodegradable. For a peer-reviewed paper soon to be released, the team screwed a shoe to the end of a pier on the San Diego shore and documented what happened as fungus and bacteria destroyed the material. The first shoes, a casual slip-on slipper, have now been made and can be pre-ordered. The process of getting them right took years longer than expected, but the startup wasn’t about to stop until the shoes met their sustainability expectations. “We’re a purpose and a mission with a company, not a company with a purpose,” says Cooke.
https://www.fastcompany.com/90734744/these-new-sneakers-are-fully-biodegradable-including-the-soles?partner=feedburner&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=feedburner+fastcompany&utm_content=feedburner Blueview sneakers are fully biodegradable, including the soles