The Next Big Sustainable Material Might Come From Your Local Lake

Footwear brands that are looking for sustainable alternative materials have frequently been choosing recycled plastic, from Rothy to Adidas to Soludos. But a new material is beginning to gain traction in the industry, popular both for its sustainable characteristics and for being a solution to the growing environmental problem of algae blooms. At Algix, its Bloom Foam polymer is made out of the algae itself.

“We use micro-algae, which is the green water that you would see in a lake or a pond,” said Ryan Hunt, co-founder and chief technology officer at Algix. “We clean the lake and turn the algae into something useful — polymer pellets — that allow us to displace a significant percentage of the fossil fuel-based EVA that’s currently being used in these products.”

Hunt didn’t always conceive of algae polymers as footwear components. The company is a spin-off from his 2007 graduate research into algae as a biofuel, but he quickly predicted that biofuels wouldn’t be able to compete with new fuel developments in fracking. So, he changed tack. The footwear industry appealed to Algix in particular because there was an early interest in alternative materials and a willingness to commit to corporate sustainability milestones.

“I’m a physicist and bioengineer — I’m the farthest from a footwear designer you could possibly be,” laughed Hunt. “But it’s been really fun and frankly a lot more fun than what we were doing before.”

Algix takes a two-pronged approach, targeting existing algae blooms and also enforcing preventive measures in vulnerable locations. The algae is harvested through a wildlife-safe water filtration process and then dried, ground and compounded into plastic composite pellets. This is then sent to brands’ manufacturers and factories, where it is expanded into a flexible foam for use in footwear.

VIVOBAREFOOT's new plant-based Primus Lite II Bio shoe, the company’s most innovative sustainable shoe to-date and one of the world’s first plant-based performance shoes.
The Primus Lite II Bio shoe by Vivobarefoot is one of the world’s first plant-based performance shoes.
CREDIT: VIVOBAREFOOT

After entering the footwear business in 2015, Algix now supplies Bloom Foam to leading brands like Adidas, Toms, Clarks and Billabong. Its first partner, Vivobarefoot, found the company after the surfer Kelly Slater used the material for pads on his surfboard. The brand has since incorporated Bloom Foam into a number of products, most recently as part of its Primus Lite II Bio Shoe.

“We like the biopolymers because they give an opportunity to ultimately be able to chemically recycle shoes,” said Galahad Clark, managing director and owner of Vivobarefoot. “At the moment, a plastic bottle can be turned into fleece but a bottle can’t be cycled back into a bottle, because the quality of the polymer degrades every time it gets recycled. The goal is to get the polymers back to their original state.”

While Algix is focused on growing its adoption rate by footwear brands, co-founder Hunt is also looking further afield at the different ways algae could become a core commodity. Currently, algae is still not thought of as a resource, which Hunt wants to change. However, despite the growing consumer interest in sustainability, he believes the real way to achieve that is through making corporations aware of the material’s value.

“People look at this green water and think, ‘That’s gross.’ It’s a problem. It’s a liability,” said Hunt. “No one is seeing it as basically a direct replacement for oil. But algae actually has a dollar sign attached to it, which it hasn’t had in the past. These companies are going to see that this is an opportunity.”

Watch the video below to see how sustainable brand Allbirds is succeeding in the industry:

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