Shoes have a significant foothold in the problem of harmful industrial waste. To make shoes sturdier and more comfortable, many manufacturers build from combinations of different kinds of petrochemicals and plastics. One such treacherous combo is ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA), usually used to make the shock-absorbing midsole in trainers. A piece of EVA is known to take as long as a millennium to break down when it ends up in a landfill or, worse, in the ocean.
Thankfully, a growing number of shoe producers are putting their foot down. This includes New Zealander Jeremy Bank.
It all began two years ago, on a family holiday at the beach in Hawaii, where shoes aren’t required and should be the last thing on one’s mind. But when Bank’s daughter pointed out mesmerising blue flecks in the sand, which turned out to be coloured microplastics, he asked himself, “Why is all this pollution happening, and why does it have to be this way?” Then, as if the sea was pulling his leg, Bank saw an old shoe washed ashore. That’s when he knew something must be done.
Born shortly after that trip and specifically from the two questions Bank asked on that fateful day, YY Nation is a Wellington-based startup that’s adamant about developing sneakers using only sustainable materials. Bank undeniably banked on his prior experience and knowledge gleaned from working in a longstanding retail footwear business founded by his grandfather in 1938.
“From that experience, along with recent manufacturing experience, and through seeing the various impacts of using synthetic materials on the environment, I wanted to seek out new and sustainable solutions through forming YY Nation,” Bank says. “It has been quite a journey and one that continues to evolve.”
According to Bank, research started with asking more questions about what could be used that is natural, has replacement properties of previously used harmful products, is waste that can be reused, and provides comfort and support. Here are some of the distinguishing materials Bank has discovered and hopes everybody will get in step with.
1. Pineapple leaves
Taking a leaf from the book of traditional Filipino fabric-making, YY Nation uses Piña, a fibre extracted from pineapple leaves, to create a leather substitute for accent features on its sneakers. Filipino farmers harvest mature pineapple leaves from the fields, and the thorns along the edges of the leaves are painstakingly removed by hand. The top layer of the leaf is scraped away using pottery shards or a coconut shell to uncover a coarse fibre that’s used to make twine. The natural textile is then transformed into a leather-like fabric stitched to the outer parts of the shoes. One pineapple, which has about 30 leaves, can make just under two pairs of shoes.
Out of the millions of tonnes yielded in the Philippines, the world’s second-largest pineapple exporter, about 5 percent of the fruit still end up being burnt as waste, including the leaves, which emit harmful carbon emissions. For that, and the fact that it provides more income for local workers, Bank is most happy about using this material in making his shoes.
Algae’s high protein content has allowed the plants to stand in for petroleum in the production of certain plastics, such as the foam used to make springy soles. Plus, using algae allows waterways and air to be purified. Overstimulation of the green goop, triggered especially by run-off of fertilizers containing phosphorus and nitrates seeping into waterways, is posing a hydro- and eco-crisis around the world. Algae block sunlight and deplete oxygen in the water — vital components to a healthy marine ecosystem — and release toxins, which can lead to the mass death of wildlife, and the pollution of drinking water and the air we breathe.
YY Nation sneakers’ insoles are made from algae collected from the waterways of the notoriously electric-green sludge that is Lake Erie in the United States. “With every sole, 45 litres of water is cleared along with 28 cubic metres of air,” says Bank. Harvested through a wildlife-safe water filtration process, the sludge is dried into flakes, then powdered into plastic composite pellets that are used in resin shoe sole molds.
Sugarcane as a shoe sole material was first popularised by San Francisco–based footwear label Allbirds. The brand’s SweetFoam, which was deliberately left unpatented in hopes that other shoe manufacturers would follow suit, is made from sugarcane found in dense and wet fields in the south of Brazil, where it relies on rainwater instead of irrigation. YY Nation too uses sugarcane from Brazil to craft its white outsole option.
When pressed, liquid from the sugarcane is turned into bioethanol that becomes the basis for a range of bioplastics, replacing toxic petrochemicals such as the ethylene and propylene that make the popular but unsustainable shoe sole material EVA.
More shoe brands are turning to bamboo for a reliable material to cover one’s feet. The anti-bacterial and anti-fungal super-plant is heated up to turn it into powdered charcoal, a process whose complete lifecycle is carbon neutral, as bamboo sequesters 30 percent more oxygen than trees. The charcoal is usually mixed with recycled plastics, because it alone does not have enough structure to build a yarn to form the upper part of a shoe. Still, the moisture-wicking bamboo fabric dries rapidly so it’s great to keep sweat at bay, says Bank.
5. Castor oil
Renewable bio-oils are making waves by allowing new ways of making the typically petroleum-heavy polyurethane, a material used to form the foam for shoe insoles. Researchers have found that some oils, such as linseed oil, can be applied to create stiffer materials. Others, such as castor oil, make materials that are more flexible and comfortable. On top of that, castor oil plants use very little water to grow and are a rapidly renewable plant, growing 10 feet in one season.