Step up for the planet with dissolving shoes

image: Woolybubs

A US footwear company has created a range of baby shoes that break down in hot water after the wearer has outgrown them, to help eliminate waste.

The shoes, made by Woolybubs, are suitable for babies up to 12 months old and designed to dissolve into a liquid when submerged in boiling water for at least 40 minutes.

Woolybubs co-founder Jesse Milliken spent 15 years working for Nike in footwear. He has a family background in textile manufacturing and believes there is a better way to make clothing and shoes for the next generation and the planet.

He came up with the idea to create the shoes after noticing the amount of waste generated from his own children's garments. He believes that shoes could help reduce the number of items that end up in landfills, citing studies that show the average shoe takes anywhere between 50 to 1,000 years to break down in landfill.

"Our goal was to create a product useful to parents that will not add damaging substances to the environment or contribute to plastics proliferation."

Jesse Milliken, Woolybubs

Newbies shoes, which come in four pastel colours, are made from a water-soluble plastic polymer called polyvinyl alcohol (PVOH) and a water-based colouring ink. The same material is currently used for laundry detergent pods.

"The industry of baby and kids' products has so much waste. We experienced it ourselves as parents, and our goal was to create a product that is useful to parents that will not add damaging substances to the environment or contribute to plastics proliferation."

"The Newbie [shoe] is our first step towards the goal of reducing unnecessary waste to landfills," he added.

According to Woolybubs, when the plastic melts, it is broken down into single polymer chains instead of microplastics – sub-five-millimetre pieces that usually remain in plastic waste even after it has been broken down.

"The material dissolves like sugar in water, breaking down into individual polymer chains – not microplastics," Milliken said. "Although PVOH has similar properties to many plastics, the dissolved polymers are broken down by microorganisms in water treatment facilities; ultimately these polymers are converted into carbon dioxide and water."

For those who are concerned what happens if the shoes get wet - Woolybubs says they only begin to disappear in boiling water or under industrial composting conditions and are durable enough to withstand rain and snow.

The company says the shoes are also 100% compostable, but with the caveat that they have to be composted in special conditions as certain bacteria must be present to break them down. Usually, this means customers are not able to dispose of the shoes in a compost bin at home. Instead, they can compost the shoes through a local industrial composter or send them back to Woolybubs where the company's partner Terracyle donates, recycles or composts the shoes.

Water soluble fashion may be more common than you think. In addition to a number of gag gifts - such as dissolving swimming trunks "perfect for a stag party" according to the manufacturer - dissolving clothing has also graced the catwalks of Paris Fashion Week; and an algae extract and silk cocoon protein dress designed by Central Saint Martins graduate Scarlett Yang made headlines after it was revealed it decomposes in water within 24 hours.

Who knows, perhaps a new wave of water soluble fashion could see a future where instead of sending clothes to landfill, you simply dissolve them!