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Feet of engineering: 3D-printed compostable shoes reduce landfill waste

You may have heard about 3D-printed shoes before, but what about 3D-printed compostable shoes? Making that idea a mainstream reality is the aim of a new collaboration between pioneering Dutch footwear company Slem and an eco-friendly 3D-printing startup called BioInspiration.

“People are shifting their production techniques to be a lot more socially conscious, but the materials are lagging behind,” Brian Crotty, CEO of BioInspiration, told Digital Trends. “That’s what we’re trying to help change.”

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The concept of compostable shoes may sound like a gimmick but, if it is, it is a gimmick that is much needed. Each year, around 300 million non-recyclable pairs of shoes are tossed into landfills. “Shoes tend to be a quickly used resource,” Crotty continued. “After two or three years, most shoes are pretty run-down. This makes them a prime object to be thinking about from a sustainability perspective.”

SLEM Robotic Arm with WillowFlex Shoe at GDS Show in Duesseldorf

BioInspiration is responsible for an odor-free non-GMO cornstarch 3D-printing material called WillowFlex, which has a biodegrading level of 90 percent in six months, under the right conditions. The current work involves using this futuristic material — which also has an impressive ability to maintain its integrity under extreme temperatures — to create 3D-printed shoes.

Do not worry, though: Crotty was eager to make sure people do not think these shoes will start falling apart on your feet. “They’re not compostable in the sense that the moment you put water on it, the material starts breaking down,” he said. “It’s more compostable in the way that wood is: if you place it in a composting scenario — with warmth, heat, oxygen, moisture and the right microbes — only then does it start to decompose.”

While this impressive concept remains a research project for now, the fact that we are now starting to see major shoe companies investigate 3D printing means it hopefully will not stay that way for long.

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