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Revolutionary product could mark significant step toward solving the footwear industry's waste problem: 'It is a vision'

"There is a trade-off between the biodegradability and durability: That is the key tension."

"There is a trade-off between the biodegradability and durability: That is the key tension."

Photo Credit: Vivobarefoot

A new 3D-printed shoe could mark a significant step toward solving the footwear industry's waste problem.

London-based Vivobarefoot has teamed up with materials science firm Balena to create a compostable shoe that breaks down into non-toxic substances at the end of its life.

The pale, porous prototype shoes are 3D-printed to the wearer's exact foot measurements based on in-store scans. While not yet available for sale, they will cost £200-260 ($245-320) once launched, according to the Guardian.

Fashion, among the world's top polluting industries, is responsible for about 10% of global carbon pollution, as the Guardian reported, based on World Bank information. Carbon dioxide not only pollutes our atmosphere but also contributes to rising global temperatures, triggers extreme weather events via that heating, and causes a slew of respiratory issues in humans and animals.

Among articles of clothing, modern shoes are arguably the most difficult to recycle. They're made from a complex mix of synthetic fabrics, rubbers, plastics, and metals, often held together with strong adhesives. According to the Guardian, the "vast majority" end up in landfills, where they can take hundreds of years to break down (and release toxic gases that pollute our atmosphere in the process).

By contrast, the compostable Vivobarefoot shoes are made from a patented thermoplastic called BioCirflex3D, which contains 51% biological materials, per the Guardian. At the end of their lives, the shoes can be returned and commercially composted, breaking down the material into non-toxic substances that can safely be put back in the earth. From dust to dust, indeed.

There are some caveats: The shoes still contain 49% petrochemicals at this stage and can't simply be tossed into your home's garbage can. Work is also still needed to improve the shoes' grip and match the durability of standard shoe materials.

But Vivobarefoot co-founder Asher Clark sees this as an important step toward a regenerative, less wasteful footwear industry. "There is a trade-off between the biodegradability and durability: That is the key tension," Clark said, per The Guardian. "It is a vision for cutting out a lot of waste in supply chains and providing an end-of-life solution for the footwear industry."

Luca Mosca, fashion lead at the sustainability consultancy Quantis, is also cautiously optimistic. "It's a good first step, but it does not represent a solid alternative to be produced at scale," he told The Guardian.

So, while these 3D-printed kicks may not immediately jump out as high fashion, they could be an early glimpse at the future of sustainable shoes. Innovations such as this one offer hope that we can change the way we get rid of our old clothes.

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