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Has a Virginia Tech Student Designed the Sustainable Sneaker of the Future?

Worn soles are more than just a minor annoyance for sneaker owners—it’s a major environmental issue. Difficult to recycle, they inevitably end up sitting in landfills.

How then, does one make sneakers more eco-friendly? Enter a new, innovative sneaker that uses modular design to help reduce the footwear industry’s negative environmental impact.

Quang Pham, a rising senior at Virginia Tech, was declared the winner of the Cradle to Cradle Product Design Challenge in the category for “Best Student Project.” The contest, run by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute of San Francisco, awards innovative product solutions that can help drive a circular economy.

Pham, who studies industrial design, won for his innovative modular shoe. Dubbed “Mods,” the sneaker uses interchangeable parts that can be swapped to change the look of the shoe. When parts of the shoe get worn, they can simply be replaced rather than tossed out—all without the use of glue.

When designing Mods, Pham took inspiration from an old pair of basketball shoes.

“The upper was completely fine but the outsole was just eaten through, and eventually my foot was popping out of the bottom, and I wondered ‘how can I fix this without buying a new shoe?’ and I thought if there were multiple parts, you could just change the part that was broken,” he said.

According to Pham, the hardest part of the challenge was finding the right materials. “I’d never really did a project [like this] before, where I had to take into account materials, and how it’s made, so it was a really good experience doing this challenge and even if I didn’t win, this was something I enjoyed doing just for myself.”

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Mods utilizes several sustainable materials in order to achieve a shoe that is truly customizable. As most sneakers use some type of glue that prevents the soles from being easily extracted from the uppers, as well as a multitude of different textiles that makes recycling difficult if not impossible, Mods uses a combination of wool textiles, recycled PET fiber, and bamboo to create a design that is comfortable and fully customizable.

“Mods stood out in several ways,” said Jeremy Faludi, sustainable design strategist and researcher and one of the judges of the Cradle to Cradle contest who helped crown Pham. “The modular design is great because it lengthens the life of the shoe, and it improves the product’s end of life recyclability, because all of the different materials are easily sorted into different waste streams.”

While Faludi said that the entry did have some small issues that still needed to be worked out—such as how exactly the sole of the sneaker would be attached using the materials described—as a whole, Pham’s vision was impressive.

“The modular design is great because it lengthens the life of the shoe…”

“But just beyond the idea of it, the execution was really good,” he said. “[Quang] actually built functional prototypes of the sneaker, where you could actually wear them, and it looks like they were made with the materials he described in the prompt.”

Pham, who still has to finish up his senior year at VT, says that he plans to continue working on his idea, and that he’d eventually like to try and bring it to market.

“I plan to expand on this within my thesis during my senior year,” he said. “Right now it’s just a running shoe, but I plan on expanding it to become all sorts of shoes – different kinds of athletic shoes, lifestyle shoes, boots, and so on.”