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Exploring the Strange and Fascinating Journey to Develop Biodegradable Shoes: Light, Porous, and Created with 3D Printing Technology.
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Exploring the Strange and Fascinating Journey to Develop Biodegradable Shoes: Light, Porous, and Created with 3D Printing Technology.


These shoes may not initially seem like the future of popular fashion. With a light and porous appearance, they appear to be a combination of a beige Croc and the long-net stinkhorn fungus commonly found on forest floors. But their creators are optimistic that these shoes will be a major advancement in sustainable footwear: the first 3D printed shoes that are customized to fit and can be composted at the end of their life. This is an effort to reduce the millions of shoes that end up in landfills each year.

The fashion industry ranks among the most harmful to the environment, generating approximately 10% of the world’s carbon emissions and utilizing significant resources such as water and land for production. Industry experts note that creating sustainable footwear is especially challenging due to its intricate nature, and there is limited data available on the quantity produced annually for the world’s 8 billion people. Additionally, there is a lack of information on the environmental consequences of shoe production.

Many shoes contain a blend of artificial materials, rubber, plastic, and metal, fastened together with powerful adhesives, making them challenging to properly dispose of. Most end up in landfills where they could potentially take centuries to decompose. In an attempt to address this issue, there are initiatives to develop recyclable sneakers in the global market worth $70 billion (£55 billion), and some companies now offer return services for customers.

The shoe company Vivobarefoot, located in London, has partnered with Balena, a material science company, to develop prototypes of their new compostable shoes. These shoes are not currently on the market and will be made using foot scans taken in-store and printed over a 30-hour period. When the shoes eventually wear out, they can be returned to an industrial facility to be composted. The patented material used in these shoes will break down into a safe substance.

Feet are scanned to make the shoes.

Asher Clark, co-founder of Vivobarefoot, states that their goal is to establish a regenerative footwear company in an industry known for its focus on exploration, extraction, and short-term thinking. Their aim is to revolutionize the traditional linear and offshore production methods by introducing the world’s first scan-to-print-to-soil footwear. This vision aims to reduce waste in supply chains and offer a solution for the end-of-life stage in the footwear industry.

According to Clark, there are limitations to the sustainability assertions about the shoes, which will be priced at £200 to £260. The patented material BioCir flex, made from a mix of 51% biological materials and 49% petrochemicals, cannot simply be disposed of in a backyard compost heap – it must be taken to a composting facility. Clark states that its durability is comparable to other polymer materials used in sneakers, but there is room for improvement in its traction.

A pile of shoes washed up on a beach

The main conflict lies in finding a balance between the ability to decompose and the durability of a product. According to the speaker, external factors such as light, heat, and moisture can cause physical products to deteriorate. The goal is to create a shoe that can withstand these elements while also being able to break down at the end of its lifespan. The two companies will continue to enhance the design throughout the experiment.

Glue and other binding materials can make shoes difficult to recycle, even when new substances are used for their main components, such as cactus “leather” – a material made from the leaves of the nopal cactus – and grape-skin derivatives, says Luca Mosca, fashion lead at the sustainability consultancy Quantis. He says it is still hard to say what constitutes an environmentally friendly shoe, and that consumers should use them for as long as possible.

“This is a complex question that requires consideration of all aspects of a product’s lifespan, including the materials used. There are significant variations, such as a performance-focused shoe made mostly of synthetic materials versus a casual leather shoe. Additionally, the environmental impact of the materials and production processes must be evaluated. Finally, the disposal of the product at the end of its lifespan must also be taken into account. Mosca explains, “Shoes are highly intricate products.”

Prototype of Viviobarefoot’s 3D-printed compostable shoe

According to Mosca, the emergence of new materials like cactus leather is a significant advancement. However, these materials cannot be mass-produced and do not possess all the qualities of traditional animal leather.

While it is a promising initial move, it does not fully offer a viable solution for large-scale production. Despite the criticisms of leather, it is still a highly durable material that can be easily fixed,” he stated.

According to Polly Lythall, who works as a business development manager at the British Footwear Association, the decision to move production to China and India has led to higher prices for environmentally-friendly choices. Despite the emergence of alternative materials, leather remains a popular and durable choice due to its ability to be repaired.

Turkish shoes hanging up at a stall

According to Lythall, a high-quality leather shoe remains one of the most environmentally-friendly options for footwear. This is because it can be resoled and repaired, making it a long-lasting choice. While there is ongoing research into alternative materials like banana skins and coconut skin, leather is still a viable option as it is a by-product of the meat industry that would otherwise go to waste. However, the cost of these high-quality leather shoes may be too expensive for many people.

Lythall explains that many vegan materials contain high amounts of oil and are often imported from China, making it challenging for members and partners to navigate due to the lack of regulations. There are no guidelines specifying what qualifies a shoe as sustainable, creating a complex issue.

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Source: theguardian.com