As the third largest lake in China, Lake Taihu is meant to provide water for more than 30 million people.
But for more than two decades, the lake has been known less for water and more for algae. That’s because weak regulations have allowed billions of tons of wastewater, animal waste, and garbage to flow unimpeded into the water.
This pollution has caused massive explosions of algae that choke out other marine life and make the water hard to filter and drink.
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In 2007, nearly one-third of the lake was covered in blue-green algae and the government suspended water collection from the lake, put a cap on how much bottled water could cost becauses prices began escalating out of control, and shut down factories surrounding the lake.
But the problem persisted.
Now, after many years of botched clean-up efforts and failed attempts to hold polluters accountable, a company claims to have found a way to keep the algae in check.
And now the lake is providing people with not just water, but also shoes.
A company called Bloom has created a mobile platform that sucks algae from the lake, purifies the water, returns it to the lake, and transforms the algae into a tiny pellet that can be used like a plastic.
The founder of the company, Rob Falken, ultimately wants to replace plastic products, which often start as little petroleum-based pellets.
“The end goal is to remove as much of the petroleum feedstock as possible,” Falken told Fast Company. “When you take a waste stream from nature – there naturally but there in such mass because of manmade inputs – we can take that feedstock, that problem, and functionalize it into usable goods that are the exact same quality, indistinguishable, from the status quo that’s out there today.”
The harvester uses a gentle suction and has filters that keep other marine life from getting harmed. Along with algae, it allows pulls nitrogen and phosphorous from the water, which makes it less likely for algae blooms to happen in the future.
The DIY-looking machines sit along the shore and draw from the top six inches of the water column.
Bloom has been working on Lake Taihu for two years and has removed millions of pounds of algae.
Recently, a shoe company called Vivobarefoot began working with Bloom to weave the algae pellets into its signature design — the Ultra III.
Each shoe is made from algae pulled from 57 gallons of water and prevents 40 helium balloons worth of carbon from entering the atmosphere.
Right now, the shoes are only 40% algae and 60% petroleum-based, but the company hopes to improve that ratio going forward.
Bloom has made other products including foam pads for surfboards and wants to expand into as many product categories as possible.
Algae thrives in warm water with high carbon concentrations and as climate change heats up the planet via emissions, more and more lakes are having problems with algae blooms, especially in areas where industrial runoff from agriculture occurs.
For Falken, this is a chance to change the status quo.
“We’ve already got more algae than we’ll ever need,” Falken told Fast Company. “In China, Lake Taihu could produce enough algae for us to produce a pair of shoes for every man, woman, and child on this planet.”