Soft goods in the outdoor industry has already learned that recycling can be good for business. For footwear, this begins now.

The numbers at first seem overwhelming: over 20 billion pairs of shoes produced every year. That’s nearly three pairs per person on the planet per year. Yet only a tiny fraction, around 5%, of discarded shoes becoming recycled. What are the causes to so many shoes being produced and such dismal recycling rates?

Benjamin Marias, the Co-Director of AIR (Agence Innovation Responsable) Co-op and a consultant for sustainability in the outdoor and textile industry, is encouraged by the recent attention this issue is receiving:

“I think this is the first time we ask these kinds of questions. Previously, people would look at performance as the only indicator.”

Identifying the Problem

As Benjamin sees things, there are three primary components to the shoe waste problem: the sheer volume, the increasing over-complexity of footwear and the difficulty in identifying and separating the different materials at the point of recycling. Each of these issues requires a shift from all actors involved, including consumers, businesses and designers.

When asked what the first group, the consumers, can do to mitigate the problem, Benjamin’s suggestion is simple.

“The first thing they can do is to keep their shoes as long as possible. For me, I’d prefer something that performs maybe a little bit less but lasts longer. If you run a lot, for example, after one year you can throw away your shoes. That’s a lot of shoes. Alternatively, I would want shoes I know I can do something with in the end.”

Recognizing the Challenge

Recycling success stories like aluminum, PET, wool and paper have been premised on the availability of a homogenous material. In footwear, however, shoes constructed with a single material are a rarity. And herein lies the challenge.

For the average shoe, a recycling program would have to consider the textiles, often of mixed types, the foam for padding, the rubber for the soles and for more complex or technical shoes, there can be metals like aluminum. While consumers can influence the volume and the design, once these complex shoes are in circulation, only an equally complex and technical solution can solve the problem. This is where SOEX, its operational subsidiary I:Collect (I:CO), and their shoe recycling plant step in.

In 2013, SOEX brought together AIR and the English company In-Cycle to look at solutions for recycling complex footwear. One year later, the first prototype of a machine that could mechanically separate the different materials in shoes was built, able to sort through 100 kg of shoes every day. After five years of development and one million euros of investment, 2018 saw SOEX and I:CO launch the world’s first plant designed to recycle all types of footwear at an industrial scale. The facility, located in Wolfen, Germany (around 150 km southwest of Berlin), weighs in at 4.2 tons and has the capacity to sort through 1 to 2 tons (roughly equivalent to 2,000 pairs of shoes) of discarded footwear each day.

The Process

Shoes are collected at any one of a number of bins around Germany or through I:CO’s in-store take-back program that is run in conjunction with numerous retailers. Once the materials arrive at the plant, the first step in the process is for the shoes to be processed through a shredder, which cuts the products into smaller pieces. All the materials are then exposed to a metal separator that uses a magnet to pull out all metallic objects. The subsequent waste is then run through the delamination mill, which fractionates the composite materials, meaning that they get divided into smaller parts according to their composition. Next, the air separator divides each of the different categories – rubber, leather, foam, and more – into discrete collections. Finally, a grinder processes all the materials into standardized sizes.

The business of the plant is to sell the byproducts that are produced as a result of the recycling process. Axel Buchholz, CEO of I:CO and SOEX, explains:

“The three main applications for the recycled outsole material are new shoe soles, sports grounds and running tracks or playgrounds, and interior design objects like rugs and doormats. Applications for the recycled leather materials are currently under development.”

Yet ingenuity aside, SOEX and I:CO face other non-technical barriers to widespread adoption of footwear recycling. Buchholz mentions the problem of profitability as one of the primary factors. The process creates components (rubber, foam, leather and other materials) that are more expensive than if one were to buy these materials directly from the market. Here, he suggests a need for systemic change, with action necessary from politicians, businesses and consumers to create incentives for producers of recycled products.

The Lifecycle

With continued innovations, recycling has an increasingly important role to play, and actors like SOEX and I:CO are key to mitigating the impact of the 95% of shoe waste that ends up in landfills or incinerators. But asked where he thinks the state of recycled footwear will be in the years ahead, Benjamin is quick to recalibrate and focus on the main goal, extending the lifecycle of the product as it is:

“Recycling is at the end. It’s the choice of last resort in the circular economic model. So it shouldn’t be considered as the main goal, and that’s something that we forget sometimes.”

As with so many other numbers that document our collective impact on the planet, the amount of waste that is produced from footwear can seem overwhelming. But consumers can choose to keep and repair their old footwear. Companies and brands can design shoes that are both easier to repair and recycle. And finally, forerunners like AIR, SOEX, and I:CO can act as a backstop, recycling shoes at the end of what has hopefully been a very, very long life.

Sean Thompson
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