Entrepreneur designs shoe that will biodegrade when buried

Luc Houle, who now lives in Toronto, started Johnny Footwear to create a biodegradable shoe that will decompose in a few years, instead of 1,000, when buried in soil.

Johnny Footwear will also plant a tree for every pair of shoes sold

Johnny Footwear has designed a shoe that will biodegrade, when buried in soil, in just a few years. (Johnny Footwear)

An entrepreneur who grew up in Sudbury wants to help reduce that plastic waste that comes from people's shoes.

Luc Houle, who now lives in Toronto, started Johnny Footwear to create a biodegradable shoe that will decompose in a few years, instead of 1,000, when buried in soil.

Houle has a background in animation and graphic design, and first entered the footwear industry 12 years ago in sales.

Through his experience in the industry, he learned manufacturers produce billions of shoes each year, and the vast majority are made of materials that won't decompose for more than 1,000 years.

"We produce an astronomical amount of shoes per year," Houle said. "And all of those are going to end up in a landfill one day."

He worked with engineers to design a shoe that would attract microbes in the soil and announce an all-you-can-eat buffet.

While the exact materials he uses for the outsole are a well-kept secret, Houle said they are made up of compounds that microbes will devour in a matter of just a few years. 

The other parts of his shoes are less secretive. 

"We use organic cotton uppers that are coated in beeswax so that they're water resistant and then a cork insole, which molds to your foot over time," he said.

Luc Houle, who grew up in Greater Sudbury but now lives in Toronto, started Johnny Footwear to design and sell a biodegradable shoe. (Johnny Footwear)

And to live up to the company's namesake, each shoe has an apple seed embedded inside it. Because there's no guarantee each seed will sprout, though, Houle said they will also plant a tree for each pair of shoes they sell.

Houle said the most common concern he gets from potential customers is that his shoes might not last long, and could degrade from regular use.

"But the compound only activates once it's planted underground, so that mixture of moisture and the great outdoors in order to kick start the process," he said.

Those compounds mean the shoes are expensive to manufacture, though. He is selling pairs for $109 through a Kickstarter campaign, but said that is a special price to encourage early adopters.

Once the shoes hit store shelves -- and Houle is in talks with retailers to carry his product -- they will likely be more expensive. 

He said the cost of materials has also gone up due to the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on supply chains around the world. 

With files from Sarah MacMillan


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