Biodegradable pulp shoes on sale in 4 years?

Household items made of strong, biodegradable wood-based materials could replace those now made of plastic and plaster.

Designer Saara Kinnunen's shoes made from cellulose Image: Saara Kinnunen

Finnish researchers believe that wood pulp is a super material of the future that will be able to replace plastics, synthetic fibres and cotton as raw materials.

The possible uses of pulp and cellulose have been studied since 2013 in a joint research project including Aalto University, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, Tampere University of Technology and the University of Vaasa. The programme wraps up in March.

Appearing on Yle TV's breakfast show on Tuesday, Professor Pirjo Kääriäinen of the design department at Aalto University says that research has focused on finding new uses for materials found in Finland.

According to the Natural Resources Institute Finland, 86 percent of the country's land area is covered with commercial forests. With a decline in demand for paper, Finland's crucial forest products industry has been scrambling to develop new products.

Kääriäinen says that designers are involving end users in product development projects. By rapidly creating prototypes, they can find out how the items work in real life and accelerate the R&D process.

One focus of the programme has been nanocellulose. Traditional pulp is ground up or processed with enzymes into a form that reshapes its fundamental characteristics. It can then be used to create new types of products.

Sustainability, not pulp fiction

Kääriäinen says her team has used this strong, light, biodegradable nanomaterial to make prototypes of camp stools, bicycles and shoes.

"If the world goes on as it is and we keep consuming products at the rate that we are now, then we have to find solutions where the materials can be either recycled or composted at some point," says Kääriäinen.

She predicts that cellulose-based products will be able to replace interior design elements that are now made of plastic or plaster. Cellulose could also be used as a raw material for 3D printing instead of materials based on plastic – which is derived from crude oil and gas.

Kääriäinen estimates that brand-name shoes made from cellulose could be on the market within 4-5 years. However some of the other materials now being tested in Finland could be a decade away from commercial applications, she says.