Balena, an Israeli startup, has created what they say is the world’s first fully biodegradable plastic fashion wear—flip-flops that will decompose into compost. Their first product—cinnamon-scented plastic sandals for men and women—debuted in December (for about $49 a pair) and has been a hit in Tel Aviv.
The fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world, behind the oil and gas industry, emitting 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases each year. And people are buying 60 percent more clothing and wearing them for half the time than we did 15 years ago.
Finding a way to reduce the carbon footprint of clothing and shoe manufacturers is a goal of Balena. The shoes were designed and manufactured in Italy using the Israeli technology of BioCir, a biodegradable, flexible material that consists of natural ingredients held together by polymers, which will break down into compost without leaving any residue of harmful chemicals. Plastics currently used in fashion take hundreds of years to break down in landfills.
“When customers bring back fashion products to stores, they will be collected, but then you don’t know what happens with them, and in many cases, what happens today is that they will be shipped to China to factories for melting and recycling on the other side of the world,” said David Roubach, Balena CEO. “Our process is more local, reduces cost and the [environmental] footprint.”
Once a user is finished with their flops, rather than tossing them in the trash, they can take them to a flower shop or plant nursery nearby, which will then pass them on to an industrial compost facility in southern Israel.
Roubach sees the sandals as just the beginning.
“The difficulty was to engineer and develop compostable plastics that could be suitable for fashion and in that area. We are currently in talks with the biggest footwear companies…to enable them to manufacture a line of compostable shoes,” Roubach said. “Essentially, our biocycling [biological recycling] solution that uses biological processes to break down waste and convert it into compost could be adapted to any product in the world.”
Like many of those in Israeli startups, Roubach’s tech journey has roots in his time in the military. He first created wearable product textiles while serving in a special combat unit in the Israeli Air Force.
“In the last 10 years, there is a lot of movement also in the fashion industry to support the approach of circularity and sustainability, but mainly with recycling and without much success,” Roubach said. “It’s super hard to recycle products that have different raw materials; in fashion today, 60% of all the materials being used is plastic. Our idea was to change the industry and take it to what the fashion industry needs.”
Roubach said that BioCir can be used in 3D printing and is highly scalable, and can be utilized in a wide range of industries. The size of the global biodegradable plastics market is estimated to reach $12.9 billion by 2030.