Could biodegradable plastic nip fashion’s waste problem in the bud? One Israeli materials-science firm certainly hopes so.
On Wednesday, Balena unveiled its BioCir slide, a slip-on made from what the company bills as the world’s first fully moldable, biodegradable elastomer. BioCir is proprietary so details about what it’s made of—and how—are scant. But the Israel-based manufacturer can reveal that BioCir contains up to 60 percent bio-based content, bound by high-molecular-weight polymers and modifiers that allow it to be returned to the ground under the right industrial conditions.
The slide is really a vehicle to show the “durable, flexible, soft and smooth” BioCir in action. The unisex item, which is colored and scented using cinnamon, is designed and made in Italy. Balena’s countrypeople will be the first to test-drive the shoe, however, since it’s dropping the first thousand pairs in its hometown of Tel Aviv. The city will also be the first to pilot the company’s BioCycling system—essentially a take-back program. Customers who are done wearing the sandals can deposit them at one of several designated locations, from which they will be collected for processing at a local industrial compost facility.
“The global fashion industry is one of the world’s biggest polluters. At Balena, our goal is to help turn this around,” CEO David Roubach said. “We’re doing this by creating our own viable biodegradable plastic alternatives and fully circular systems that can be easily scaled and copied and pasted across the globe.”
Roubach said that the deployment of the material and its end-of-life management are completely scalable. BioCir can be used in regular injection molding processes as well as 3D printing. Equally important, it can function as a drop-in replacement for current “polluting” shoe materials, allowing brands to develop footwear that looks and feels just like their existing offerings. The overarching idea is to use the “power of composting” to reduce fashion’s sizeable environmental footprint, he added.
Biodegradable shoes—all clamoring for the title of the industry’s first—appear to be having a moment. April saw California’s Blueview tout a disappearing plimsoll made from hemp, Tencel and algae-based foam. The same month, Woolybubs in Oregon whipped out baby shoes that dissolve in boiling water. Puma has dabbled in biodegradable low-tops, as has a European firm called Oat.
And it was only last week that Unless Collective bowed a biodegradable sneaker made with all four of Natural Fiber Welding’s (NFW) bio-materials. What sets the so-called Degenerate apart from its competitors, the companies said, is its complete lack of plastic or any kind of petrochemical-derived ingredients. But the materials don’t have to vanish into nothingness—something that biodegradable fashion’s critics say is a waste of valuable resources. All NFW products can be ground up and rendered into new iterations. Or they can break down into nutrients to grow new feedstock, which Balena says it also hopes to do.
“We hope our BioCir footwear shows the world that there is a real alternative: Fashion can be fabulous, functional and Earth-friendly,” Roubach said. “We’re proud to be the company opening the door for any fashion brand to start stepping into a more circular future.”