I go through clothes and shoes pretty quickly. I’m not sure if I’m particularly rough on things, or I just tend to buy cheaper apparel that isn’t made to last – probably both – but it seems that every day I’m discovering a frayed sleeve or a hole in a shoe. As an obsessive environmentalist, I’m very strict with myself about trying to generate as little waste as possible, so quickly wearing out clothes and shoes presents more of a problem than just wasted money.
While there are plenty of thrift stores and charitable organizations that will take gently used clothing and shoes, it’s harder to find organizations that will take beat-up apparel that’s outlived its usefulness. It’s even harder to find (affordable) apparel that’s made with materials that will biodegrade rather than sitting in landfills and leaching chemicals into the ground for decades. So what’s a broke environmentalist to do?
3D printing could help. Germany’s BioInspiration, creator of the compostable WillowFlex 3D printer filament, is a company for which sustainability and environmental responsibility has always been a priority. Last year, their successful Kickstarter campaign showed that the 3D printing world is more than ready for safe, biodegradable flexible materials.
One area in which flexible 3D printing materials have been showing up frequently is that of 3D printed shoes. The appeal of 3D printing in the footwear industry is due to the same reasons it’s so popular in so many other industries: namely, comfort and customization. No two people’s feet are exactly the same, so while you may fall into the category of one particular shoe size, that doesn’t always mean a perfect fit. 3D printing makes it possible for shoe manufacturers to design and fabricate shoes that are perfectly custom-fit to their customers’ feet, ensuring comfort and avoiding the host of potential foot, leg and back problems that can come with ill-fitting footwear.
One of the earliest organizations to begin exploring 3D printed shoes was SLEM (Shoes, Leather, Education, Museum), a research, innovation and educational institution for the footwear industry. This year, the organization decided to go a step (sorry) further with their research and begin looking at how 3D printing could be used to create shoes that are not only customizable but sustainable.
To start experimenting with eco-friendly design, SLEM turned to BioInspiration and their WillowFlex filament. It’s important to note that while clothing can be made from biodegradable, environmentally safe fabrics, shoes are a bit more difficult, mostly because of the soles. SLEM began 3D printing shoe soles from WillowFlex in their lab; in fact, they developed a method to 3D print the soles directly into the fabric of the shoes, creating an entire shoe in one single step.
The project is still in the prototyping stages, but SLEM intends to eventually manufacture functional shoes that can, in theory, go into the compost heap once they wear out.
“WillowFlex was an easy material to work with and printed as well as the other chemical based flexible filaments we have been working with,” said Nicole van Enter, Creative Director at SLEM. “We look forward to working with BioInspiration to improve the long-term durability of the material to move into production.”
BioInspiration is pretty thrilled about the partnership, too; SLEM’s biodegradable shoe concept is exactly the kind of product they envisioned when they developed WillowFlex.
“BioInspiration is founded on the knowledge that sustainable materials can equal and out-perform the alternatives,” said BioInspiration CEO Brian Crotty. “Working with forward thinking groups like SLEM helps to move the needle of public perception towards acceptance. Experimentation with Vision is the key to Progress.”
I know I, personally, would absolutely buy shoes that I could return to nature when they wore out – and I’m betting that many others would, too. Tell us what you think! Discuss further in the 3D Printed Biodegradable Shoes forum over at 3DPB.com.