A few years back, sustainability and eco credentials didn’t make the grade when it came to buying new footwear. At least, not enough to start a global movement that any New Wave mindset needs to be able to gravitate from the hinterlands of public consciousness to the mainstream of culture, debate and awareness. But spring forward to 2019, and with the plastic wars raging and a widening climate change conversation washing like a tide over the consumer landscape, a new market has appeared, one eco-tech innovator Bloom, a Mississippi-based brand that supplies the footwear industry with plant-based performance-driven foam, is all set to take advantage of.
How’s this for a thought: Everything you ever desired, owned, used and discarded, now resides in a refuse pile - buried, out of sight, out of mind but very much still around. Or this: The plastic we make today will still be here in 1000 years; quite possibly 10,000. Well, not here with us exactly. It will be in the fish we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe - just as it is today.
But at least we can thank the reality of want and waste for finally getting the ‘Let’s Not Kill and Poison Absolutely Everything’ conversation started, turning eco from a sneered-at nirvana to a force for change that is empowering brands to build better.
“We're here to solve a problem,” says Jon Van Drunen, Project Manager of footwear at Bloom. “That is, we’re here to get algae back under control.” Which, as mission statements go, is no great shakes. But as Jon explains over the phone from the company’s HQ in Mississippi, algae with ambition is not good news. “Algae is ordinarily a positive thing, but too much of it causes serious problems. Most people don’t realise that.” He’s not kidding. Combine runoff nutrients from farms with over-pollution and an abundance of sunshine and heat, and you get an outbreak of algae blooms - stagnant swamp-like infestations that befoul formerly pleasant ponds, lakes and rivers, cut off oxygen supplies in the water, kill fish, plant life, decrease home values and even put human health at risk.
And most damagingly of all, algae blooms hurt precious fresh water sources. “So we restore balance by taking excess algae and turning it into useful products that people can use, like our performance EVA-replacement footwear foam that Quoc is using in its Weekend city cycling shoe,” Jon explains.
On the plastic pollution awareness scale, the EVA (Ethylene vinyl acetate) that gives your sneakers spring isn’t yet as in focus as the plastic in your weekly shopping bag, but in many ways, it’s far worse. EVA foam is all but unrecyclable; so whether you burn it, which releases volatile organic compounds and contributes to the formation of tropospheric ozone harmful to humans and plants, bury it, or grind up the scraps to make a less performance-dependent product, there is no good end of life solution to the 20 billion pairs of shoes that are produced every year.
Back in 2010, Algix, the company behind Bloom wasn’t thinking about how to reduce our reliance on EVA. Instead, they were experimenting with how to get the oil out of algae for use in biofuels. “It's an interesting concept but it's kind of expensive to do, and it takes some time,” Jon says. “So we did some initial tests on the algae biomass itself and found that it was high in proteins. And we realised that plastic is made up of proteins as well. So we thought, ‘Let's try blending it and make a more sustainable plastic.’”
Instead of blowing up the algae cells to get at the oil inside, Algix attempted to use the entire algae cell, the whole biomass, an approach that led them to an unexpected discovery. “That's how we initially came across the huge algae problem in the world - we are looking for it, and lo and behold, algae is everywhere!” he laughs. “So we developed a mobile harvesting system which we can deploy wherever the source is, whether that be a lake, or pond, or riverbed. One flip of a switch and we can start harvesting algae.”
Past efforts at part-replacing sneaker EVA have failed for a simple reason: performance. EVA is amazingly good at what it does, and it's durable as hell. “The footwear industry has been starving for an eco-friendly EVA foam,” Jon explains. “And until now, there hasn't been an answer for that. There have been some other options, castor bean oil, stuff like that. But really, it doesn't perform. Brands have had to choose, do they want a sustainable story? Or do they want a performance story? Until Bloom, they couldn’t have both.“
When blended, a sole infused with Bloom’s algae foam can reduce EVA reliance by up to 30%, while retaining the performance characteristics of a 100% EVA product.
And then there’s the other, unlooked-for benefit of the Bloom process: cleaner water. “As we're harvesting the algae in, we separate it from the water, and then we return that filtered water to the source,” Jon explains. “We can calculate on a per shoe basis how many water bottles of filtered water we can put back into the environment, and how many birthday balloons full of carbon dioxide we can permanently remove from the atmosphere. As an example, for an insole and midsole for a typical men’s size nine sneaker, we can process the equivalent of 225 bottles of filtered water, and remove 21 birthday balloons full of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”
But before we get too carried away, it’s worth noting that currently, Bloom’s foam can’t yet replace 100% of the EVA in a sneaker’s sole. “Our base resin is made up of 50% algae and 50% EVA to match the performance of a 100% EVA product,” Jon notes. “So technically there will always be some EVA present because the algae need to bond to something in the formula to be able to perform.” Although if Jon has his way, pretty soon a 100% algae, fully biodegradable foam sole with EVA-matching performance will be on the horizon. ”It will be completely marine biodegradable,” he says excitedly. “And that’s game-changing.”
The Quoc Weekend Performance Sneaker built with Bloom's algae foam is now available to pre-order.