Until recently, Jesse Milliken worked at Nike leading teams designing shoes. But in fall 2020, as wildfires burned across Oregon, he and his wife, Megan, started talking about a new career.
“We were driving back over Mount Hood in the thickest of smoke, in the scariest conditions we’ve ever been in,” Milliken says. “And we both just kind of looked at each other in that moment, and looked back at our kids, and felt like something has got to change.”
He decided to leave Nike to focus on sustainability, partnering with his wife to launch a brand called Woolybubs to tackle environmental challenges, starting with one especially wasteful corner of the apparel market—baby shoes. They wanted to find a way to reduce the amount of landfill made up of cast-off baby products. Their first tiny shoes take an unusual approach: When the shoes wear out, you can put them in boiling water, where they’ll simply melt away.
The shoes are made from polyvinyl alcohol (known as PVA), a water-soluble form of plastic that is used in a variety of other products, from cosmetics and pill coatings to the wrappers on detergent pods. If a baby starts chewing on a shoe made from the material (babies tend to do things like this), it’s not going to melt. But when the shoe is at the end of its life, if it’s placed in boiling water long enough, it will break down.
Milliken says that the shoes break down in industrial composting facilities as well. PVA also uses less energy and water to make than materials like leather, cotton, and wool.
Still, the material is controversial. When PVA is boiled, it may look like it has disappeared, but it turns into a solution, the same way salt dissolved in water still exists and makes the water taste salty. While some studies suggest—as the company claims—that PVA is fully biodegradable in water, others argue that it won’t happen at a typical wastewater treatment plant because certain bacteria need to be present to break it down, and the system also needs to be the right temperature and take enough time.
“All of these factors play a big role,” says Charles Rolsky, a research scientist who studied PVA while working at the nonprofit Plastic Oceans International. “And if you’re not designing a wastewater treatment plant to break it down, it’s not going to break down.”
Woolybubs is commissioning a study to test that the shoes do fully biodegrade without creating microplastics or other residue. It’s also working with an independent lab to test how the shoes biodegrade in industrial composting facilities, home compost bins, and in landfills.
Before they melt, the shoes are designed to be durable—and to last long enough that they can be donated to another infant after the first owner outgrows them.
“It took us almost a year to develop this fabric that was durable enough,” Milliken says. “It’s kind of ironic to use the word durable for babies, but durable enough to last and stand up to baby wear and tear, and then ultimately still break down and degrade in the right conditions.”
The Millikens designed the silk-like material from scratch, and then constructed the shoes using PVA in every component, including the thread, so that everything could break down together. The design also avoids elastic, both for the baby’s comfort and because of its environmental footprint. “We wanted to use mechanical geometry to allow the shoe to open and then close again and stay on the foot,” Milliken explains.
The plan is for Woolybubs to continue searching for new ways to improve sustainability. “We are always looking for innovative solutions to improve the environmental impact to the planet,” Milliken says.
The startup’s next shoe, for toddlers, will be made from recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) with a silicone outsole. When the shoes wear out, customers can send them back to be disassembled and recycled; the fabric can be recycled into new yarn to make new shoes.
Article Source: https://www.fastcompany.com/90768882/when-your-baby-outgrows-these-shoes...