Researchers create eco-friendly, biodegradable flip flops made from algae

A student pours polyurethane into a flip flop mold. By Alaa Elassar, CNN

(CNN) -- Researchers at the University of California San Diego have developed flip flops made from algae-based, polyurethane materials to help fight plastic pollution around the world.

The team, which works at the California Center for Algae Biotechnology, used chemistry and biology to turn algae into renewable polymers that can be used to create a wide range of biodegradable products.

One of the first products is a pair of flip flops, which the researchers hope will draw attention to widespread plastic pollution in the world's water supply.

As "the world's most popular shoe," plastic flip flops account for a significant portion of that pollution, Mike Burkart told CNN.

"It has become obvious that the world has a major plastic problem polluting the planet, now more than ever," said Burkart, a biochemistry professor at the university who helped develop the sandals.

"We need to change our habits and take on the personal responsibility to use less plastic in our lives," he said. "But plastic is very useful material all around us, so we need to get to the point where when someone's buying a product, they insist it's biodegradable."

Flip flops that decompose in 18 weeks

The process of creating the flip flops begins with growing algae in ponds, then separating it from water to create a viscous paste. Next, the researchers extract all the lipids, or fats, from the algae and run them through numerous chemical steps to break them down into smaller pieces used to make polymers. Lastly, the polymers are poured into a shoe mold.

After hundreds of attempts, the researchers successfully created a polyurethane foam that is 52% biocontent and 48% petroleum. Within five years, they hope to make a product that uses 100% renewable materials.

"For now, this as good as you're going to find anywhere. No one has been able to achieve that much renewability," Burkart said.

"While we don't want people chucking these flip flops in our rivers or oceans when they're done with them, if they do they will biodegrade naturally and completely decompose in about 18 weeks in the right conditions, so either in a compost or in soil," he said.

To make the flip flops commercially available, the researchers launched Algenesis Materials, a biotechnology company that will collaborate with shoe manufacturers to sell the flip flops and other biodegradable products made from algae.

The flip flops will be available in January 2021 in a range of fashionable colors and designs.

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