At some point I am almost certain my work at BLOOM will turn me into a sneakerhead. But then again, I am also inundated in research regarding just how environmentally-detrimental the shoe manufacturing process is. For all the many reasons a person may consider becoming a minimalist, awareness as to just how harmful and pervasive the petrochemical industry is should be a sobering one.
Petroleum is a feedstock used in nearly every product. From the soles of our shoes to the fabric on our backs, and even in deodorant, it would seem there is no getting around the non-renewable resource. It is also the key ingredient in flexible foam, the stuff shoe insoles and midsoles are made of. Get the EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) formulation right, and your shoes are lighter, bouncier, more flexible, more resilient… The list of competitive benefits goes on, but EVA itself presents an environmental problem that begins at formulation and gets trapped in landfills for thousands of years.
The shoe industry is deeply aware of the barriers it faces in producing footwear that mitigates environmental harm, and it is a responsibility they take seriously. Well-known pioneers like Patagonia (although not currently in the shoe market) and Keen, and relatively newcomers to sustainability like Nike and Adidas are leveraging their best minds to focus on sustainable innovation.
Researching the topic is a dizzying conundrum—the more I try to learn about the materials and processes that go into making shoes, the more questions I am hit with in return. A 2008 Runner’s World article talks about the long-standing sustainability challenges the running shoe industry has had difficulty overcoming, until now.
The shoe industry is deeply aware of the barriers it faces in producing footwear that mitigates environmental harm, and it is a responsibility they take seriously.
BLOOM custom-formulates and manufactures plant-based flexible foams made with algae biomass. Research conducted by our scientists have found that algae contains thermoplastic qualities that, when added to the EVA compound, actually improve performance aspects of the foam itself. Independent testing by potential customers have further validated our findings. We are working on improving a few cosmetic aspects of our foam, like safely removing the pigment, chlorophyll, to produce a pure white foam; and reducing the natural earthy scent from the algae biomass, but as far as performance goes we’re thrilled to offer a solution that overcomes a 30-year barrier: We are, to date, the only renewably-sourced plant-based solution to petrochemical foams on the market.
We’re obviously not the first to tap into the myriad of biochemical uses for algae. For decades, scientists and chemists in academic and private sectors have researched ways to make carbon-neutral biofuels, nutrition supplements, and even cancer treatment applications from the wonder plant. Algae’s potential is so vast that, according to Sara Menker, CEO of Gro Intelligence, the United States government has invested over $1 billion in algae-related technology.
Most of the research in the algae industry has been through cultivating genetically modified strains grown in tanks. BLOOM’s approach is different. We work with our sister-company, Algix, to harvest algae from freshwater sources—like lakes, rivers, and ponds—at risk of algal bloom. Using proprietary technology, we pump algae-ridden water into a harvesting unit, separate the slurry and remediate the water in the process. Once the slurry is collected, it is transported to our factory where the algae is solar-dried into biomass. The biomass is refined, and that is the key ingredient that replaces a significant proportion of the petroleum used in the flexible foams. This differentiated approach is critical because we are working with nature to turn a negative environmental impact into positive uses in consumer goods. By using biomass instead of extracting fuel from algae, we are able to do more with less waste, and we avoid GMO byproducts.
To get back to the flexible foam used in your running shoes, we can’t say we are the perfect solution, because even though we use a renewable feedstock to offset the amount of petroleum used, EVA itself is not biodegradable. So when your favorite pair of shoes starts to loose its “spring,” we’re no better than the rest (yet). Our lab is working on 100% biodegradable BLOOM foams that maintain high performance factors. Here is what we DO offer today, and why you should care about this innovative step forward in the flexible foam market:
- Reducing dependence on petrochemical ingredients means we are replacing a harmful, non-renewable resource with a safe, GMO- and pesticide-free, renewable feedstock
- Our non-invasive algae-harvesting process helps remediate waterways, providing safe drinking water and healthy ecologies for the people and animals who rely on those sources. This is a much more environmentally sound solution to drilling for crude oil that is later processed into petroleum.
- Harvesting naturally-occurring algae also means we don’t genetically modify the strains, a process that could wreak havoc if leaked into natural habitats
- By using algae biomass—found in mass-abundance around the world—we provide a cost-competitive and performance-driven solution to petroleum feedstock. Cost-savings that can be passed down to the consumer.
BLOOM offers brands and consumers a viable solution today that is a step in the right direction: Moving away from petroleum as a feed stock and toward a renewable and safe plant-based solution. We continue to test and refine our products toward improved sustainability. Within the flexible foam market, the industry has been looking for a plant-based alternative to petrochemical foams since the 1970s. BLOOM is doing it, and we’re not done innovating yet.