Flexible foam can be found in many areas of our lives; in our luggage, clothing, furniture, and other everyday products. In a promising step away from petroleum based foams, the company BLOOM is sourcing its foam from algae, specifically from freshwater sources experiencing or at risk for dangerous algal bloom. BLOOM was invented by Rob Falken and Bloom Holdings LLC is a joint venture of Algix LLC and Effekt LLC.
Algae offers both inherent thermoplastic and antimicrobial properties that make it a powerful foam component. I asked BLOOM Design Director Abby Miller to tell us more about BLOOM’s foam products and their popular uses:
“Since we're still a young company (one-year-old), we don't have a ‘popular’ use yet, but we are focusing heavily on the footwear industry (insoles and midsoles). We are conducting quality and performance testing with several shoe brands. Our first customer collaboration, a surfboard traction pad made exclusively of BLOOM foam, launched earlier this month. It was a collaboration with 11-time-world surfing champion Kelly Slater and his surf brand Slater Designs and Firewire Surfboards. Other uses for our foams include everything from industrial-grade insulation to yoga mats and backpack padding. It's incredible how ubiquitous foam is in our everyday lives and we don't even notice it. I certainly didn't think about it before I started working with BLOOM, and now I notice it in so many products I own.”
She also explained that their flexible foams are made with freshwater, blue-green algae, a “humble, under-appreciated aquatic plant.” To create the antimicrobial version of their foams, they provide the option to add their antimicrobial called AlgaMetrix. AlgaMetrix “is made from a highly concentrated compound extracted from a particular strain of algae… [The antimicrobial foam’s] applications are particularly useful in shoe insoles, where adding the antimicrobial inhibits the growth of odor-causing bacteria. Or, it can be added to antiperspirant to naturally inhibit the growth of odor-causing bacteria. In food packaging, our antimicrobial can be used to inhibit the growth of bacteria like E.coli. We're still doing research on these uses, but test results so far have been very positive. Another important thing to note about our antimicrobial is that it inhibits bacterial growth, as opposed to killing bacteria.”
BLOOM commissioned Earth Shift, a third-party Sustainability Consulting firm, to carry out a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) from cradle to gate--“in the case of [their] foam, this was from harvesting the algae to making the flexible foam master batch.” BLOOM was found to have 20–41% less environmental impacts when compared to conventional EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate) based foams in categories including ecosystem, cumulative energy, climate change, resources, and water.
BLOOM foams offer several positive environmental impacts relating to freshwater cleanliness and reduced CO2 levels. The algae sourcing process cleans and recirculates freshwater and when the algae is used as a flexible foam, it becomes a permanent carbon sink. The BLOOM site offers this example of BLOOM CO2 sequestration: “a pair of size 10.5 men’s trail running shoes using BLOOM foam in the midsole and insole can sequester enough CO2 (on account of the algae) to fill approximately 20 standard sized balloons with CO2.”
Here’s a bit more background from Miller on Falken’s development of BLOOM:
“[Falken] has been developing materials (fabrics, fibers, foams, plastics, etc.) for over 17 years. He has a fascinating mind, in that he looks for innovative ways to functionalize organic waste streams, like a sugarcane waste alternative to polystyrene foams, or in BLOOM's case, blue-green algae that can lead to HABs [harmful algal blooms] when found in over-abundance. In 2014, he began researching algae and possible uses for it--flexible foam was a hit, and from there he sought out Algix, a wild algae harvester who was converting the algae into biomass (finely milled solar-dried algae) for use in plastics. This was important because Rob's goal was to solve the algal bloom problem by harvesting algae as a renewable resource, not growing genetically-modified algae in tanks, often used as a biofuel source. Today, Rob works with a team of algae experts, Ashton Zeller and Ryan Hunt, in our Mississippi lab to develop the specific formulations based on our customers' target performance characteristics.”
BLOOM is not currently biodegradable. The BLOOM website mentions the possibility of developing a biodegradable BLOOM foam, so I asked Miller to tell us more about that:
“This is a project we're passionately working on right now. The challenges we are currently working to overcome are:
1. Scalability: Right now producing our biodegradable BLOOM foam costs about 10 times more than the market is willing to bear, which means it's not economically feasible for companies to adopt the technology. We are working on a business model and production alternatives to overcome this challenge, however.
2. It has to be industrially compostable—so the product lasts long enough to provide high performance and at the end of the product lifecycle, they can be composted without impacting the environment. A great example is a traction pad that (aside from the adhesive) is 100% BLOOM foam or any other product where the foam can be separated from the other components in a product for industrial composting.”
Miller says that Falken has “learned a lot about what it takes to get a product to the market, and what companies are looking for. Even for the most environmentally-minded brand, their offerings and production methods have to be profitable. So we are very realistic about that fact, and we try to close as many of the gaps that keep manufacturers and brands from adopting environmentally-focused technologies. We want choosing BLOOM foam to be a no-brainer for companies who understand that environmental and business sustainability (the “3Ps:” [people, planet, and profit]) are inextricably linked.”
Miller also says they are proud to “offer an environmental solution to conventional, petroleum-based flexible foams in a way that is scalable and economically viable for companies to adopt.” As the BLOOM site puts it, “we can’t claim to be the perfect solution, but we will always work on being the best, most responsible solution available on the market.”
BLOOM is currently harvesting algae in Mississippi, Alabama, the Caribbean, and China, including in Lake Tai, which has been heavily impacted by algal bloom. The foams are manufactured in Asia and you can learn more about their locations from the map on their sustainability page. You can also follow BLOOM on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.