July 29, 2019

Shoes from Sludge—Bloom's Mission to Turn Toxic Algae into Footwear

A lot of countries are struggling with epidemic levels of algae across the globe — which can prove toxic to people and ecosystems if left unchecked — one brand is looking to put the invasive organism to work by turning it into plastic that can be used in an array of products including footwear.

What are algal blooms?

Algae are organisms that are neither plant, animal or fungi. They can be single-celled (like phytoplankton) or multicellular (like giant kelp). Like land plants, they conduct photosynthesis to feed themselves, but lack a lot of their counterpart’s same structures and cell types.

Algae are naturally occurring, but under certain conditions, they can propagate to excessive levels in bodies of water called algal blooms that often discolor the water they take over. They end up leeching nutrients that kill other life in the surrounding waters, which subsequently decompose and feed the bloom again.

Some types of algae produce domoic acid and microsystin that can poison wildlife and humans. Accidentally swallowing, swimming or inhaling the algae causes vomiting and diarrhea while extended contact can lead to cancer and liver failure.

While Earth’s creeping temperature may be a factor to explain the sudden global epidemic of algal blooms, it is more likely a result of the increase in nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients in these waters. These elements are found in fertilizer used in our lawns and farms which is subsequently introduced to larger bodies by rainwater.

Key players tacking algal bloom

  • AECOM: The multinational engineering firm specializes in massive infrastructures such as wind farms, bridges and NYC’s One World Trade Center. Its technology aims to filter water to recuperate the algae and then return clean water to the source. To do so, a coagulant is added to slimy water to make the algae gather into clumps. Air bubbles are then pumped in, which lift the algae clumps to the surface to be skimmed off.
  • Rob Falken: The surfer and inventor holds a background in materials development. He’s applied algae’s high protein content as a stand-in for petroleum-based plastics, such as the EVA used in yoga mats and shoe soles.
  • Algix: The company developed a small-scale method for vacuuming slime out of catfish farms. In 2014, they partnered with Falken by providing Rob Falken with algae that he then developed into a plant-based foam. The process involves pulverizing solar-dried algae, turning the powder into pellets, mixing it with EVA and molding it into usable sheets of bioplastic.

Early adopters

Bloom was borne out of Algix’s partnership with Falken in 2015. Their small-scale production initially attracted boutique brands for niche products. However, in order to attract and supply bigger brands, Bloom partnered with AECOM to greatly increase its algae-harvesting capacity in 2016. Two years later, AECOM began its first large-scale removal projects in parts of Florida, where the algal bloom problem is especially bad. Over 15 brands have since caught on, including:

  • Bogs: put Bloom footbeds into its shoes and boots
  • Altra: built Bloom into its new line of casual sneakers
  • Saola: Bloom insoles and outsoles
  • Lane Eight: Soon to release a new line of training shoes using Bloom
  • adidas: currently testing Bloom foam for use in future products.

Hurdles and hope

Despite its promise, Bloom might not catch on right away.

  • Non-recyclable: just like EVA, it can’t be melted and reprocessed into new material.
  • Cost: The raw material costs nothing, but it’s still not cheap enough to deter most mainstream brands within the $20-40 USD per pair range from switching to it
  • Price point: The brands that adopt Bloom are the ones that want to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability by pricing their goods in the $80-100 USD range.

That said, even if Bloom doesn’t become a hit overnight, every part of the process that the company created—not just the final product—shows promise for tackling multiple issues at once. For one, AECOM’s algae filtration system could prove to be a far more cost effective way to clean waterways than dredging, while using Bloom in place of EVA means less dependence on petroleum products.

It remains to be seen as to what we’ll eventually do about the root cause of the algal blooms (agricultural use of fertilizers). For now, the bioplastic offers a solution, no matter how imperfect.

Image Credit: Maggie Chiang

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