Project Re:SUEDE, PUMA’s biodegradable compost sneaker

Puma, the global sports company, has achieved a remarkable feat of sustainability: turning an experimental version of its classic Suede sneaker into compost. The sneaker, which was made from biodegradable materials such as wood-based polyester, hemp, and Zeology-tanned suede, was part of a two-year-long pilot project called RE:SUEDE, which aimed to test the feasibility and benefits of biological recycling in footwear. This is the first project from PUMA’s circular lab and They claimed that it has successfully turned its classic suede sneaker into compost under certain tailor-made industrial conditions”.

In 2021, Puma created 500 test pairs of the Re:SUEDE sneakers, using Zeology tan suede, TPE outsoles and hemp. The sportswear brand then asked volunteers to wear the sneakers for six months to test comfort and durability before sending them to a specially equipped industrial composting area Operated by their partner, Ortessa Group in the Netherlands.

How does PUMA do this work?

In early 2022, Puma invited consumers to participate in the RE: SUEDE pilot project, selecting 500 people from 2,000 applicants in Germany to wear the shoes approximately twice a week for six months. There, Puma sought to answer four questions:

  1. Can Puma create a compostable shoe that people want to wear?

-More than two-thirds of pilot testers said they would recommend RE: SUEDE to others, although 57% said it was uncomfortable.

  1. Did participants return shoes for composting?

-Four hundred and twelve of them did so.

  1. Could the shoes transform into farm-ready compost?

-Not entirely. The uppers decayed well enough to be used as standard compost but the soles took too long.

  1. Can it evolve?

-Puma’s Circular Lab is exploring new projects, including an effort to recycle RE: FIBER textiles with professional football shirts.

Of course, the important question is whether the shoe degrades enough for agricultural use. Initially, some waste management companies refused to cooperate with Puma because introducing new materials into industrial composting facilities risked contaminating the compost.

Figure: Diagram of the materials within RE:SUEDE sneakers. Source: Puma

Following a strict protocol, Puma first shreds the sneakers, mixes them with other green household waste, and puts them into the compost tunnel.  They are then “sprayed with filtered water” from the previous composting process that contains nutrients and is naturally heated by biological activity and controlled air circulation in the tunnel.

After about 3.5 months, materials that are small enough (less than 10 mm) to pass through, the sieve are sold as Class A compost for agriculture (according to Dutch standards), while the remaining materials are returned to the tunnel until they have also been decomposed to the desired level.

How the shoes are composted according to expertise saying

Yet the project piqued the curiosity of Marthien van Eersel, Ortessa’s manager of materials and innovations. “We thought about it and said, what the heck, let’s see what it is,” he said. “We have a special testing method, where we can introduce biodegradable materials into our terminal and they will not contaminate the rest of the green household waste or the compost that we make.”

Private Dutch company Valor’s composting facility turns 50,000 tons of household food waste and garden waste into 24,000 tons of Grade A compost for farms each year. From March to June, Ortessa mixes Puma shoes with green waste from households and makes them decompose at high temperatures in one of 14,150 square meter concrete tunnels. Every two weeks, the company screens for decomposing materials: anything less than 1.5 inches in diameter is compostable; less than 0.4 inch becomes Class- A compost.

Figure: Inside a composting tunnel at the Valor Composting Facility. Source: Ortessa

RE: SUEDE uppers are made from Zeology hemp, cotton, and suede, tanned using a non-toxic zeolite-based formula. These materials degrade quite quickly. After 2.5 months, most of the materials are usable. But Ortessa expects the shoe lining – made from TPE-E, a flexible polymer – to take about four more months to completely decompose.

PUMA publishes the result of project RE:SUEDE

Anne-Laure Descours, chief sourcing officer at Puma, said in a statement: “While the Re:SUEDE could not be processed under the standard operating procedures for industrial composting, the shoes did eventually turn into compost.” She added, “We will continue to innovate with our partners to determine the infrastructure and technologies needed to make the process viable for a commercial version of the Re:SUEDE, including a takeback scheme, in 2024.”

Puma also added that they plan to share their project’s insight in a very detailed report, “So its peers and other interested stakeholders can learn from the experiment and apply the learnings to their own initiatives”.

Marthien van Eersel, manager of materials and innovations at Ortessa, added: “We learned a lot during the Re:SUEDE trial and how to streamline our industrial composting process to include items that need longer to turn into compost.” “While all Re:SUEDE materials can decompose, the sole of the Re:SUEDE requires more pre-processing and additional time in the composting tunnel to completely break down,” he added.

The Re:SUEDE trial is the first program, alongside the new Re: Fiber polyester recycling initiative. The program will be launched as part of Puma’s innovation center, ‘Circular Lab’, led by a Leading sportswear brand’s innovation and design to create the future of the corporate circularity programs.

Other ventures by PUMA toward the circularity goal

RE:SUEDE isn’t Puma’s first stab at a biodegradable sneaker. Ten years ago the company launched an InCycle design featuring organic cotton and linen, with soles of APINATbio plastic.

Figure: Puma’s original “Crack” running shoe from 1968. Source: Puma

Since then, the technology has improved, Puma’s senior head of innovation, Romain Girard said, “The RE:SUEDE is a simple shoe, comprising only a few pieces and components.” “We are currently working on exploring a similar concept but based on more complex products that have higher functional benefits.”

Puma has talked to many of these startups, Girard said. “We share the same goals yet here at Puma we are looking at developing innovations that can be applied at scale,” “We see the opportunity to scale up giving more people access to these types of products. We also see the chance to expand the product portfolio in this field with different silhouettes and product types.”

Puma’s circularity goals for 2025 include product recall in major markets; halving the amount of manufacturing waste sent to landfills; and developing recycled materials for leather, rubber, cotton, and polyurethane.

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