For a growing number of footwear brands, embracing recycled materials is no longer enough. To be truly circular, they say, a shoe must be recyclable into a new one. But the concept has proven elusive — perhaps more so than with clothing.
Much of this has to do with the way shoes are typically designed. A T-shirt might comprise one or two fibre types. A single trainer or sneaker, by contrast, can consist of dozens of disparate foot-protecting and performance-enhancing materials that are designed to stick together and not fall apart. With existing technologies, most shoes can only be downcycled, meaning they’re pulverised into a mulch suitable mostly for paving playgrounds or athletic tracks.
And that’s in the best-case scenario. Of the billions of pairs created annually, the vast majority of shoes eventually end up in landfill, where petrochemical-derived components, such as ethylene vinyl acetate, a popular sole ingredient, can take centuries to degrade.
All this can be avoided if shoes are not only made easier to disassemble but also transmutable into new ones, leaving no waste behind, circularity’s proponents say. The desire to create a more recyclable shoe is also indicative of the sector’s growing awareness of its effect on the planet. Shoe production accounts for a fifth of the fashion industry’s environmental impact and generates 1.4 per cent of global carbon emissions, according to Quantis, a sustainability consultancy.