Fashionable, environmentally friendly flip flops made from algae could help save the planet

Updated on Aug 15, 2020 02:57 PM IST

Researchers at University of California, San Diego hope to make future beach visits both environmentally and fashion-friendly, with a new formula for biodegradable flip flops.

Flip-Flops made from algae that was turned into biodegradable and renewable polyurethane are shown on campus at UC San Diego, in San Diego, California, U.S., August 12, 2020.(REUTERS)
Flip-Flops made from algae that was turned into biodegradable and renewable polyurethane are shown on campus at UC San Diego, in San Diego, California, U.S., August 12, 2020.(REUTERS)
San Diego, California | ByReuters | Edited by: Alfea Jamal

Researchers at University of California, San Diego hope to make future beach visits both environmentally and fashion-friendly, with a new formula for biodegradable flip flops.

Mike Burkart, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the public research university in San Diego, California, has developed a polymer from algae, which decomposes naturally.

“We begin by growing algae and we grow them in raceway ponds where we can grow them up to very high density,” said Burkart during a tour of the a lab for Reuters. “At that point when they are fully grown, we take the water out of them...and basically we’re able to get the algae down to a very viscous paste.”

UC San Diego chemistry professor Michael Burkart looks over algae as it is grown in a green house before being turned into renewable and biodegradable polyurethanes on campus at UC San Diego, in San Diego, California, U.S., August 12, 2020. (REUTERS)
UC San Diego chemistry professor Michael Burkart looks over algae as it is grown in a green house before being turned into renewable and biodegradable polyurethanes on campus at UC San Diego, in San Diego, California, U.S., August 12, 2020. (REUTERS)

“Then what we do is extract all the lipids out of that algae and it’s those lipids that we’re making our materials out of,” he said.

The laboratory initially made gasoline from algae before turning its attention to surfboards, and now the humble flip flop. “Almost every major shoe manufacturer has come to talk to us about the possibility of using our materials in their products,” Burkart said.

The simple footwear is affordable and popular around the world, and therefore makes up a significant portion of discarded plastics polluting oceans and seas. But Burkart is hoping his algae-based shoe-wear will change that.

A renewable and biodegradable polyurethane made from algae is shown at a lab on campus at UC San Diego, in San Diego, California, U.S., August 12, 2020. (REUTERS)
A renewable and biodegradable polyurethane made from algae is shown at a lab on campus at UC San Diego, in San Diego, California, U.S., August 12, 2020. (REUTERS)

In a 2017 video uploaded by the university on YouTube, Stephen Mayfield, Professor of Biology and Director, Cal-CAB, UC San Diego explains, “About three billion of these (flip flops) are made every year, it’s the number one shoe in India, the number one shoe in China and the number one shoe in Africa. And in fact, a lot of the pollution that comes in our ocean are things just like this. that get discarded, flow down the rivers and into the ocean, where they become a part of the garbage patch.”  

He went on, “So if we can make one that is sustainable and biodegradeable, we have a chance to impact not only San Diego, but every beach community, in fact the entire planet by developing these. Our plan in the end is that you can throw this in a compost pile and it will be eaten by organisms.”

Renewable and biodegradable polyurethane made from algae and turned into a flip-flop is shown at a lab on campus at UC San Diego, in San Diego, California, U.S., August 12, 2020. (REUTERS)
Renewable and biodegradable polyurethane made from algae and turned into a flip-flop is shown at a lab on campus at UC San Diego, in San Diego, California, U.S., August 12, 2020. (REUTERS)

“We’re also talking to other companies, for example, for things like food packaging or other types of materials that we don’t want to live forever in the environment,” Burkart said.

“We really want those to be able to decompose or be able to be recycled,” he said.

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