David Roubach would prefer that customers keep their Balena slides forever.
But knowing that most footwear eventually gets discarded, his startup made these Italian-designed slides from a flexible, 100 percent compostable material instead of plastic.
And he says that’s a first in the developing “eco-shoe” sector.
Conventional shoes contain plastic, glue and other materials that can take up to 1,000 years to fully biodegrade, often emitting toxins as they break down.
A handful of footwear startups are experimenting with fast-biodegrading materials, such as OAT Shoes, whose sneakers were designed to be buried and come back as wildflowers – but that Dutch venture failed to blossom.
Balena’s slides, which are a little like flipflops, are made of BioCir elastomer, a proprietary biodegradable combination of natural materials bound by polymers and modifiers. And yes, they can get wet.
These shoes are Roubach’s opening bid in a battle to bring sustainability and circular economy into the infamously wasteful fashion industry.
An estimated 92 million tons of apparel are thrown away globally each year, including billions of shoes piling up in landfills.
Developed in Israel, Balena’s moldable BioCir provides a viable alternative to the plastic that now makes up about 60% of apparel content.
The slides get their speckles of color (and scrumptious scent) from cinnamon, one of many botanicals Balena tested — using leftovers from an Israeli tea manufacturer — until finding one that looked, smelled and felt right.
A thousand pairs of prototype slides were distributed in Tel Aviv. Balena set up collection spots in the city where the used shoes can be dropped off for industrial composting under controlled conditions. (They can last indefinitely until then.)
The decomposition takes just a few weeks, says Roubach, while in backyard composters the breakdown could take longer.
Roubach isn’t ready to say when the slides will be sold commercially, “but our goal is that one day soon you’ll find many products made from BioCir and other polymer materials that can be thrown into the composter,” he tells ISRAEL21c.
On the wall of his Tel Aviv office are additional shoe styles made of BioCir.
“If we want to implement a new material, we have to find the right go-to-market application for that material,” he explains. “We started with footwear because it is something magical in terms of consumer engagement. It’s a complicated task that we are still developing.”
Special forces, special materials
Roubach served in an IDF special forces unit where he made equipment prototypes, sparking his interest in textiles and advanced materials.
Then he studied business at IDC Herzliya (now Reichman University), learning the financial and marketing languages he’d need to combine entrepreneurship with the ideals of circular economy and sustainability.
“My first product, four years ago, related to food waste,” he says.
This venture, The Fridge, now encompasses 35 public refrigerators around Israel that bring the circular economy to leftover food.
“When this succeeded, I understood I could take it one step higher, to involve technology in the circular economy,” Roubach tells ISRAEL21c.
“I always loved fashion, so I went to Bocconi School of Management in Milan to study fashion and sustainability.” Balena, Italian for “whale,” started as his thesis project.
Upon returning home with a solid concept, he met Yanir Shaked, founder of Plastics App in Megiddo and former president of the Israeli Polymers & Plastics Society.
Shaked, who did his PhD 25 years ago on biodegradable polymers, agreed to serve as chief scientist of Balena, and BioCir was developed with the support of Plastics App.
Balena was launched two and a half years ago with an R&D grant from the Israel Innovation Authority and later got funding from a British VC. Balena has a staff of five in Tel Aviv, one in London and one in Milan.
BioCir-based products can be manufactured using existing processes including injection molding, extrusion and 3D printing.
This makes the new material highly scalable, ready for collaboration and implementation across diverse verticals.
“We took knowledge from a lot of areas and combined them for the first time to create novel soft, flexible materials. The patent is not on a specific polymer but on the process of combining a variety of polymers in a unique way,” Roubach explains.
“They are all fully compostable, using up to 60% bio-based material. Our mission is 100% bio-based but this is something that affects the price point — and we want to make our products affordable.”
I look forward to wearing my cinnamon-scented Balena slides around the house, to the pool, and of course in the garden – but not too near the compost pile.
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