While the plastic free movement is gaining momentum and this year’s Plastic Free July campaign aiming to curb the consumption of single-use plastics by one billion kilos this year, in the footwear industry, there’s no sign of plastic use slowing down. More than 23 billion new pairs of sneakers are made annually, most of which are made from virgin plastic, rubber, leather and petroleum.
Several sportswear giants are seeking better ways to do shoe business. In 2015, Adidas teamed up with environmental organisation Parley to create a range of products that feature Parley Ocean Plastic™, an innovative material made of recycled fibres sourced from upcycled marine plastic debris and fishing nets. The Adidas UltraBOOST range of high-performance sports runners, for example, is made of 95% Parley Ocean Plastic™ Primeknit upper, upcycling approximately 11 plastic bottles.
Last year, New Balance partnered with cult eco-fashion label Reformation, to promote a range of fashionable sneakers that featured inserts made from BLOOM algae and EVA foam; reducing the traditional amount of fossil fuels used for production.
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Recently, Reebok have redesigned its most iconic shoe styles to be more sustainable by incorporating recycled plastic. The REEcycled collection showcases seven of its most popular designs, but reconstructed so that the uppers are made with at least 50% recycled materials and each apparel piece is constructed with 40% recycled materials. The new collection reflects hours of research and testing in order to reproduce the high-performance and quality sports shoes that Reebok is known for – with less environmental impact.
“All plastics should get to live more than one life. To be morphed and repurposed. To become something unexpected. We’re committed to switching up the game and turning plastics into shirts, shoes, and more,” said Reebok’s creative director in a press release.
While sportswear manufacturers increasingly incorporate sustainable materials into shoe collections, the problems of durability and material end-of-life remain.
In her groundbreaking book Foot Work: What Your Shoes Are Doing to The World, author Tansy Hoskins shares shocking truths about the footwear industry. “Most shoes these days are not built to last,” explains Hoskins in a recent Eco Warrior Princess interview. “So even if you wanted to keep them for a long time, that wouldn’t be an option. After four, six months, they start falling to pieces.”
The industry desperately needs innovative solutions to its growing waste problem. With roughly 300 million pairs of sneakers thrown out every year, and few shoe recycling options available to customers, shoe manufacturers will need to redesign for longevity and offer end-of-life solutions if they are truly serious about sustainability.
According to the Australian Sporting Goods Association, over 25 million pairs of sports shoes are imported into Australia, with only one percent estimated to be recycled. Its new footwear recycling initiative Save Our Soles – in partnership with major sporting brands including New Balance, Converse, Globe, Rebel, Adidas and ASICS – aims to close the loop in the Australian sports shoe supply chain. After launching its Victorian pilot program this year, the cohort have so far collected over 65,000 pairs of shoes across 100 locations, diverting 20 tonnes of waste from Australian landfills. The aim is to convert the worn out shoes into a range of useful recycled products.
Another Australian based non-for-profit organisation, Shoes For Planet Earth collects used sports shoes and sneakers to provide to underprivileged communities across Australia and New Zealand and in developing countries across Asia and Africa.
Nike is one of the few sports apparel companies offering a sneaker recycling program. Its Reuse-A-Shoe recycling program has been collecting any athletic brand of sports shoes and sneakers from consumers since 1993. To date, the company has collected 32 million pairs of shoes which it has transformed into valuable material that is used to build basketball courts, sports tracks and, you guessed it, footwear.
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Cover image via Reformation.