Biodegradable plastics in shoe soles

As promised in my last entry, I’d like to present you another one in the series of researching new sustainable materials.

Apinat BIO® is a series of bioplastics developed by API, Italian producer of thermoplastics. The line consists of soft, biodegradable elastomers (a first in the world, they claim!) suitable for various applications. I came across Apinat BIO® via Stella McCartney’s site. They said they’ve been using Apinat BIO® biodegradable plastics in shoe soles already in 2010. Apinat’s own website offers a bit contradictory information as there it is said that they’ve made an exclusivity deal with Puma, granting Puma exclusive use of Apinat BIO® in the footwear sector. Puma will be first using the material in their 2013 Spring/ Summer collection, in the sole of a sneaker called InCycle Basket. (Also Stella McCartney website says they have Apinat biodegradable plastics soles in their summer 2013 collection. Perhaps they have different product types then and the deal with Puma is for one of them.)

Anyway, regardless of the deals I think it is an interesting material.

The sustainability claims of Apinat BIO® are backed up by international standards for recyclability and biodegradability (EN 13432/EN 14995 in Europe, ASTM D 6400 in the USA). They also have an international patent for the product line. In practise, the material is made of renewable raw materials and it degrades by at least 90% within 6 months if placed in a compost.

The co-operation project with Puma seems interesting, too. Puma’s InCycle collection, where they are using the biodegradable sole material, is part of a co-operation project called called Bring Me Back that they run with global recycling company I:CO. The program aims at collecting used products back for recycling, and the program site says they don’t collect just the Puma stuff but people can bring any clothes and shoes to the Bring Me Back bins. I didn’t make a complete sense out of the relationship between the InCycle collection and this recycling campaign, if they actually are somehow utilizing the collected stuff as a base for raw materials in the newcoming InCycle collections. Anyway, Puma’s InCycle collection has been granted a label called 100% Cradle-to-Cradle Basic Certified (CM) and it seems to be the second world’s first in this blog entry.

Image

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9zfkYHtuMc

I was planning to link this somehow to the lecture topic of convenience, but all these labels and standards and patents and trademarks make my head ache. I guess that my personal feeling of the moment is that (regarding the clothing industry) through new material, technological and process innovations a mass-market sustainable convenience offering can be reached, as opposed to niche products/ brands such as Globe Hope. (Though I’m not sure if our planet runs out of time before we reach that state). Also, this InCycle campaign of Puma brought back to my mind Angelina’s comment on the lecture that the recycling industry will become a major industry in the future, due to resource scarcity. As a note to self, and the whole Internet, I’d like to know more about that.

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2 comments
  1. Elina said:

    Biodegradability has become something that people tend to fuss about nowadays. The idea that something can be produced, used and then, at the end of its life cycle, made to vanish, is something that interests people. However, not so many of us have really thought why these biodegradable materials were originally developed or how they are made, and even more, not so many of us even question whether these materials are that good after all.

    One of the main reasons for developing biodegradable materials has been the problems caused by the enormous amounts of waste that mankind produces. As consuming less seems to be not so tempting option, biodegradability has given people an opportunity to consume in a “sustainable way”. Meaning that when people want to get rid of the product, they have the option where the product can be made to disappear out of sight. This process, however, requires that the biodegradable products are disposed in a correct way to a system where micro-organisms, such as bacterias or fungis help the product to biodegrade. If these materials end-up to wrong process, such as to the plastic recycling, the consequences can be extremely harmful. Also, if the biodegradable products end up to landfill, they will produce methane and carbon dioxide. In this sense, offering and purchasing biodegradable products is a big responsibility. The companies must educate their clients to dispose the products in a right way, and the consumers must follow these instructions. However, we must also evaluate the efficiency of biodegradable products. For example, when a biodegradable products biodegrades it produces water and carbon dioxide. However, if it is burned, it produces water, carbon dioxide and energy. According to this fact, is letting thing to biodegrade the most efficient solution after all?

    To cite someone else’s wise words, “Biodegradable plastics are exciting and useful materials, but they should only be used when they have a concrete benefit for a specific product”. In this sense, I don’t fully agree with Puma’s or Stella McCartney’s decision to use biodegradable plastics in shoe soles, especially if the shoes have non-biodegradable parts as well. To which problem is this type of solution trying to answer? Are traditional rubber soles really so unecological? In addition, how many of the people who will purchase that type of shoes, will return them to the recycling point? The intention surely is good, but I’m not fully convinced yet if the biodegradable soles are an environmentally sound solution.

    All in all, in my opinion it’s not the biodegradability that matters. The best solution for our waste problem is after all very simple; to consume less.

    • jennimaar said:

      Some good points in Elina’s comment as well as Monday’s lecture made me want to continue with this post a little further. Communicating or advertising biodegradability may, as Elina suggests, create an ’out of sight, out of mind’ –type of effect. It might also be a fad, a buzzword that ends up being forgotten. The idea that the items you buy simply disappear once thrown into waste basket or land fill, might lessen the shopping guilt and thus play a part in maintaining the consumption culture. And of course, any material and any form of consumption has both pros and cons. It depends, like we have so many times heard in the class.

      However, I think that new materials such as bioplastics may have a good impact as part of a bigger picture. The communication of Apinat BIO® is based on biodegradability, but I’d like to think that another key feature is the raw material: instead of oil, biobased plastics are wholly or partly derived from biomass. Biomass used for bioplastics can be for example corn, sugarcane or cellulose. European Bioplastics organisation name two major advantages compared to traditional plastics: saving fossil resources (oil) and reducing GHG emissions. Obviously, how the material is treated at the end of its life cycle plays a part in the emissions part. Biodegradability that is a feature for some bioplastics, offers additional ways for getting rid of the material at the end of its life cycle. As a competitor to oil-based plastics, bioplastics may have some benefits. I would need to know a lot more about the topic to actually be able to give a real statement about that!

      But, to the bigger picture: if I want to think in an optimistic way, I could see Puma’s InCycle campaign as an effort towards raising awareness and changing behaviour both inside the company and among their customers, a baby step towards a better future. I have traditionally been doubtful in regards to big companies’ sustainability claims. They easily seem to be so little, that I quite often am inclined to think them as marketing gimmicks. (it was quite shocking to hear that according to some measurements H&M is doing well in terms of sustainability! I’ve always felt it epitomises all that is wrong in our consumption culture.) Monday’s lecture on business models made me see this from a new perspective. Path dependence and managerial cognition were new concepts to me and help explain the slowness of change. Also, from a business point of view the ’simply consume less’ is rather problematic advice.

      There’s no easy fix. Puma’s InCycle campaign could be a good concept, a trial for a system that is more sustainable. Creating closed loop systems is a topic some researchers are working with. Textile Futures Research Centre (TFRC) and Textiles Environment Design research group at Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon colleges (TED/CCW) for example have interesting projects on looking beyond the product to examining the entire system in which it operates. The basic idea of closed-loop systems is that materials are designed for recycling. The ”old way” of recycling, i.e creating new designs out of used materials, extends the life of the material one step further. That could be called the first step towards closed loop systems, and the way I understand it, GlobeHope could be used as an example of this. Also a simple version of biodegradable materials would belong to this stage, as the idea is that the product ends up at landfill. The second step is cradle-to-cradle: considering barriers to recycling as part of the design brief and building possibilities for recycling into the materials. Again, if I understand this correctly, a mature, well-functioning InCycle-type of system could be an example of this step. The third step then is design for material ecologies: forward recycling, with an example of chemical recycling of polyester back to virgin-quality polyester. This kind of system would ”include all material resources in an infinite industrial ecology” (quote from Material Futures).

      Obviously these are very experimental research projects but at least for me they provide very fascinating food for thought in terms of future sustainability business models. It will take so many steps to reach a more sustainable system, and there will definitely be many mistakes made along the way. Still, I think it is important to look forward and work towards new solutions.

      Here are some links: (somehow I can’t create the links into the texts in this comment mode)

      Cradle-to-cradle Products Innovation Institute:
      http://www.c2ccertified.org/about

      About bioplastics, European Bioplastics organization:
      http://en.european-bioplastics.org/bioplastics/

      TRFC’s website:
      http://www.tfrc.org.uk/

      Amazon link to Material Futures book:
      http://www.amazon.co.uk/Material-Futures-01-Rebecca-Earley/dp/1906908192/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1365421145&sr=8-1&keywords=material+futures+01

      /Jenni

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