A young Whakatāne man who's always dreamed of designing shoes has had the first step of his sustainable dream come true thanks to a prestigious Dyson award.
Rik Olthuis, 22, has landed a James Dyson award for his compostable sneaker design and is set to pursue his dream launching his Voronoi runners to a wider market.
The Massey University graduate, who moved to Wellington to study in 2016, designed the fully biodegradable running shoes for a project during his final year in 2019.
Now based in Tauranga, Olthuis says the journey all started with a passion for footwear.
"We could design whatever we wanted and I wanted to design a useful shoe for today's market. I was also aware of the push for sustainability within the industry," he tells the Herald.
The number of pairs of shoes produced globally has gone from seven billion to 23 billion since 1950. What used to be one pair per person is now three.
According to ClimateWorks Foundation, most shoes end up in the landfill and take more than 50 years to fully decompose.
But the Voronoi runners can easily be deconstructed, as every material and component can be composted at the end of its life.
Olthuis says it's important to think about what happens to the shoe once it's no longer being used.
"The use of adhesives prevents the separation and treatment of materials at the
end of the product's life cycle. I was inspired to design a sneaker using only biodegradable materials with no adhesives."
And he wanted to tap into the ever-growing athleisure market with his design.
"It's a running shoe but the line is blurred between athletic and casual," Olthuis explains. "I wanted it to be comfortable, sporty and still casual."
To make the shoes, he developed a gelatine and glycerine-based biodegradable foam to replace the usual blown polyurethane.
He added natural ingredients to improve the strength, water resistance and compression footwear needs. Fully handmade, each shoe took about a day to 3D print.
The sneakers are named after the mathematical equation used to make the pattern on the sole and midsole of the shoe, called a Voronoi structure.
Olthuis 3D printed this structure from a biodegradable filament, while the shoe's upper is made from merino wool with 3D printed details.
He made 15 individual shoes while developing the final design and managed to keep production costs pretty low. One pair of the shoes cost about $100 to make.
"The footwear market is very fussy, it's constantly evolving," Olthuis says.
"It is difficult trying to design something long-lasting in terms of trends. Sustainable fashion has got to be explored as we're becoming more aware of it."
And the young design engineer says the Dyson competition is getting his work noticed.
"It's a really good opportunity to get your work out there as there's not a lot of risk involved. And it's awesome to have the opportunity to get feedback from a brand like Dyson."
The award is an international competition for future design engineers, run by the Dyson Foundation.
The NZ leg of the competition was judged by the founder and CEO of the Sustainable Business Network Rachel Brown ONZM, Dr Michelle Dickinson (aka Nanogirl) and engineer Sina Cotter Tait.
Brown said it was encouraging to see a design like this as the fashion industry "has a long way to go" when it came to sustainability.
"I was really impressed by the holistic approach taken and the way Rik had thought about the full life cycle from its material choice and eliminating nasty adhesives, to production via 3D printing and then thinking through what happens to these shoes at the end of life," she said.
"I would love for my sports-mad son to be able to purchase a training shoe like this."
Dickinson loved the idea of using gelatin in the foam.
"Allbirds has proven that there is a growing market for sustainability focused product innovation so this could be the perfect time for this product," she said.
As the national winner, Olthuis will receive NZ$3500 to go toward helping test the form and strength of a biodegradable filament.
He and the other two New Zealand finalists will move on to the international stage of the competition, where a top 20 will be picked by a panel of Dyson engineers and announced on October 15.
British inventor Sir James Dyson will select the international winner and sustainability winner.