When a new pair of prototype Adidas sneakers wears out after a couple of years of use, you can put them in the sink, add a small packet of an enzyme, and naturally dissolve the shoe upper. Within 36 hours, you can safely rinse it down the drain.
The shoes, made with an extra-strong, nature-inspired new material called Biosteel, are designed to take the idea of closed-loop products one step further: If they make it to the market, you'll be able to recycle most of the shoe inside your own home. (The sole, at least in the prototype, is not made from the new material.)
"We want to enable consumers to make responsible end-of-life choices, and, by using a nature-based material that can be biodegraded anywhere, we can do this without adding an external take-back circle," says James Carnes, VP of strategy creation at Adidas.
The material, made by a German company called AMSilk, also avoids the environmental problems caused by the polyester used in most athletic shoes. It's fermented with bacteria and renewable resources, not made from fossil fuels. The production process doesn't require high temperatures, saving energy.
"The key benefit of Biosteel fiber is it allows us to move from fossil fuels to renewable raw materials," says Carnes. "This means any product we create from this material will not contribute to plastic and microplastic pollution, which is threatening the oceans."
Adidas has committed to reducing the use of plastic in its supply chain, and, in another project, is using recycled ocean plastic to make shoes and jerseys.
Biosteel has some advantages over ocean plastic—it's easy to produce at scale, and while it's 15% lighter than typical polyester, it's modeled on silk, and the structure makes it extremely strong.
While the new Futurecraft Biofabric shoe is still a concept, the company may produce it next year, and it's testing the material for wider use. On its own, however, it's unlikely to replace all of the conventional materials the company uses.
"Biosteel offers exciting opportunities to create more sustainable products but one material cannot single-handedly solve all plastic pollution and replace all fossil fuel based resources used in our industry," Carnes says. Adidas is now running an R&D program to create new design standards, invent new materials, and optimize and reinvent production processes. The ultimate goal: to replace virgin plastics in all of its products.
[Photos: via Adidas]