Within sustainability circles in the outdoor community, hardgoods producers have by and large been seen as stragglers. Can a recycling program by ski boot producer Tecnica turn over a new leaf for the sector?
Compared to their apparel counterparts, the hardgoods sector in the outdoor industry has a reputation for developing far fewer standards, focusing less on fair working conditions and taking little climate action. In its defense, its leverage over supply chains dominated by the likes of the automobile and construction industries is minimal.
Right or wrong, this perception might be due for an update – thanks in part to the efforts of people like Maurizio Priano, the unlikely protagonist to this story.
“As a parent, visiting beaches and forest trails with my kids had become so depressing – there’s just so much plastic waste everywhere,” shares Maurizio Priano, Marketing Brand Manager at Tecnica, as he reflects on the lead up to the newly launched Recycle Your Boots (RYB) program.
He admits that he had his concerns about taking a position with a ski boot producer in the first place: Constructed with Polypropylene or Polyurethane shells and EVA foam liners, ski boots just might be the most plastic human wear ever invented. And while they may not end up on beaches, eventually there’s an end to every pair of ski boots. At present this usually means a dusty shelf at the back corner of the garage or the dumpster.
“Could I work with a product that is almost entirely made of plastic?”
Despite these misgivings, he did accept the position. But within a few weeks on the job, he was ready with a pitch.
“Besides the environmental aspects, I made the case that a ski boot recycling program would also have multiple advantages for the brand. The CEO bought the idea, and we set the process in motion.”
Recycle Your Boots Project is born
After a successful initial pilot, it was decided that a project of this scale would require competent partners and external financing. These were soon found in the Italian recycling experts LaPrima Plastics and the European Union’s environmental funding instrument known as the LIFE programme.
Two years into the project, the Federation of the European Sporting goods Industry (FESI) also agreed to partner, using its new Winter Sports Sustainability Network to facilitate knowledge exchanges, assist with communications and promote the project on a European scale.
“To remain competitive and make a positive contribution on the warming threat, the industry must respond in a unified and coordinated way, whether it be to reduce its carbon footprint or to meet the growing environmental consumers’ expectations,” shares Jérome Pero, FESI General Secretary.
“By working together through our new Winter Sports Sustainability Network, we can now move faster towards a more sustainable winter sport industry.”
With funding and supporting partnerships in place, the project set about the task of meeting its ambitious goals of recycling 7,000 boots within the first year, and 30,000 within the first four years.
“An initial hurdle would be to actually collect enough boots in the first place to make this worthwhile. We decided to take boots from any brand, and broadly rolled out the take-back program in 8 European countries together with 248 distributors.”
Transporting over such a large geographical area, however, would also come with its own environmental impacts. Here, Tecnica was able to find a low-emissions logistics provider, Fercam Logistics & Transport, that was able to help optimize pick-up capacities and routes, while offering carbon offsets for emissions created during transportation.
Once collected, LaPrima Plastics developed a system that separates liners from shells, shreds them, then separates the shreds into different types of plastic and metals that could return to the supply chain.
“Some were skeptical in the beginning, but the overall response has been great!” shares Maurizio Priano.
Slashing carbon emissions
Though the project has successfully demonstrated the technical feasibility for ski boot recycling within a relatively short period of time, the potential to scale up depends on a slower strategy of changing old habits – both within industry and with consumers:
“We’ll need to be patient and continue to build awareness and participation of consumers, retailers and other ski boot brands. This is still just the beginning,” shares Maurizio Priano.
That said, Tecnica has now initiated a communication campaign to raise this awareness, getting more retailers on board as information distributors and old boot collectors as well as getting word out to consumers.
Simultaneously, it is awaiting results from the University of Padova, which is conducting a life-cycle assessment of the entire process to compare against ski boots using virgin materials.
“The numbers aren’t official yet, but I can share that the process will have great energy savings that might nearly cut emissions in half.”
Designing for circularity
At present, the complexity of recycling countless ski boot models produced by multiple brands produced over a period spanning twenty seasons results in the retrieval of low-grade raw materials. Thus, the RYB program is currently able to produce various basic components without high performance demands for Tecnica ski boots and other products within the Tecnica Group portfolio. The remainder of the material is sold into the supply chain by LaPrima to likely become other downcycled products.
But this is just a beginning, where the plan is to incrementally get to the point where Tecnica can produce entire ski boots from these recycled materials.
“This project has had the spin-off effect of feeding back into our own design processes, whereby we are designing with circularity in mind so that the next generation of Tecnica ski boots can easily be recycled into high-quality materials.”
The Winter 2023 collection will already see many of these innovations and will include data stamps on components that make it easy to identify the exact material used. By designing for circularity today, the intention is that old boots can receive a second life as new ski boots tomorrow.
“Tecnica’s purpose is to enable people to enjoy every single ski moment to the fullest. If we want that to happen in the future, we have no choice but to do our part and defend our playground.”