Scientists are using algae to end flip-flop waste

New flip-flops made of algae would mean far less plastic waste. The popular summer shoe may feel refreshing…
Flip-flops made of algae

New flip-flops made of algae would mean far less plastic waste.

The popular summer shoe may feel refreshing on your feet on a hot day, but this invigorating effect doesn’t last once your shoes have seen one too many summers.

The vast majority of flip-flops are made cheaply and are intended to last just a season or two before the wearer discards the pair and buys new. This means a huge amount of plastic waste that goes into earth’s landfills, beaches, and oceans.

But at the University of California San Diego, researchers are on the case. The team of scientists has been investigating solutions to flip-flop waste for years. Now, in 2020, they have published a report in Bioresource Technology Reports showing their findings.  

Building the shoe

A graduate student named Natasha Gunawan led the project with Marissa Tessman from material science company Algenesis. Stephen Mayfield, one of the professors whose lab the project took place in, said that the team tried tons of material formulations:

The paper shows that we have commercial-quality foams that biodegrade in the natural environment. After hundreds of formulations, we finally achieved one that met commercial specifications. These foams are 52 percent biocontent—eventually we’ll get to 100 percent.

Stephen Mayfield
ucsd algae-based flip flops.
Flip-flops made of algae. (Stephen Mayfield)

Breaking it down

The team didn’t just focus on creating the shoes. They also experimented with the shoes’ degradation. According to Mayfield, it is possible for commercial plastics to biodegrade. But the unfortunate reality is that this is only possible in labs or in industrial composting. These are not the conditions most discarded flip-flops face.

So, to test the new algae-based shoes, they put in them in simple soil and compost. They did indeed biodegrade—in only 16 weeks.

As Mayfield says, “The life of material should be proportional to the life of the product. We don’t need material that sits around for 500 years on a product that you will only use for a year or two.”

Thus a flip-flop that breaks down in about the same amount of time as one summer season is promising news.

With this development, the researchers have taken another step toward solving the plastic crisis.

Article source: UCSD News

Featured image source: Stephen Mayfield

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