Recycled shoes take center stage in 2023 as major brands embrace trash-to-treasure

According to a report by the World Economic, more than 50 billion pairs of shoes were produced in 2022, and most of them ended up in landfills or incinerators. The footwear industry is one of the most polluting and resource-intensive sectors, consuming large amounts of water, energy, chemicals, and materials, and emitting greenhouse gasses, microplastics and toxic substances.

Why it is difficult to recycle shoes

In every pair of shoes, there is a long list of materials. Sometimes there’s found up to 40 different materials are in one pair of shoes including plastic, rubber, metal, and ethylene-vinyl acetate (foam), among others; where many of which are sewn or glued together. This makes them extremely difficult to recycle.

Some materials don’t have the necessary recycling facilities in place. Leather is a popular material choice for shoes – more than 60% of the UK shoe sales are leather-based shoes, and yet the recycling of leather from post-consumer shoes has not been commercially exploited.

Planning for post-consumer shoe recycling is often not included in the design process, it’s an afterthought. An example (usually associated with cheap shoes) is cementing construction, where the sole is glued to the upper. Luxury brand Bally claims that once the sole and upper are separated or damaged, the relationship between the parts are over. A cement shoe can’t be resoled and therefore its lifespan is very limited.

Another example is vulcanization – the process of turning rubber into a polymer – commonly found in skate shoes. Vulcanized shoes cannot be resoled because the upper, outsole and strap bond together during the vulcanization process, making them inseparable.

These are the things that are making shoes extremely difficult, and often impossible to recycle. But what about being less bad?

How Shoe Recycling is Evolving to Meet the Challenges of Sustainability

In this regard, some shoemakers are trying to change this situation by adopting more sustainable practices and innovations. Companies like Adidas, Asics and Thaely are leading the way in creating shoes that are made from recycled or renewable materials, designed for easy disassembly and recycling, and aligned with circular economy principles. These companies are reducing their environmental impact and creating value for their customers, stakeholders, and society. One Dutch company, FastFeetGrinded, has developed a method to combat waste while the industry searches for more sustainable materials, which can process upto 2,500 shoes per hour.

What does FastFeetGrinded do?

FFG, located in the Netherlands, collects shoes from the Dutch military, collects boxes from stores, and manufacturers pay the company to destroy defective shoes. The company then separates the shoes into different types before putting them through an automated system that uses heat and friction to separate them. Once the shoe is broken down, the materials are sorted by type, such as rubber, which is ground into fine particles, and fabric, which can be spun into yarn to create new laces.

The fully automated shoe recycling machine (SRM) at FastFeetGrinded grinds down athletic shoes and separates all foam, rubber and textile components. The machine returns from 1 ‘000 kg of athletic shoes 380 kg of foam, 230 kg of textiles and 170 kg of rubber. The grinded materials are reused in different products, such as sports flooring, picnic tables, or even outsoles of new shoes.

Figure: Deconstruction of Major shoe parts and converting them into recycled products.

From Waste to Value: How Fashion for Good, FastFeetGrinded, and Brand Partners are Transforming the Footwear Industry with Circular Solutions:

Fashion for Good launches a new pilot program with brand partners Adidas, Inditex, Target and Zalando, as well as footwear recycling innovator FastFeetGrinded to test and validate innovative footwear recycling processes to support the adoption of recycled content into shoes, thereby driving a shift towards a more circular footwear industry.

“This project will be a first in the footwear industry to allow us to understand the sustainable recycling technologies and infrastructures needed to accelerate the transition towards a circular future. By fostering collaborative partnerships like this, where companies come together to share knowledge and validate innovation, we pave the way for scalable solutions,” said Katrin Ley, Managing Director, Fashion for Good.

FastFeetGrinded has the unique ability to deconstruct any type of footwear before and after consumption, breaking it down into its macro ingredients. These macro-ingredients are then ground into smaller, high-purity pellets that FastFeetGrinded can use to create material streams for reuse. Through this collaborative pilot project, the partners will transfer pre- and post-consumer footwear to FastFeetGrinded, which will process them into a variety of new material pellets.

The next step involves FastFeetGrinded’s extensive network of supply chain partners, who will manufacture the output products, such as outsoles, midsoles and flip-flops.

Brands will closely evaluate product quality and purity, aiming to showcase the potential of FastFeetGrinded’s footwear recycling technology and pave the way for scalable solutions.

With demand for raw materials expected to triple by 2050, urgent action is needed to reduce dependence on raw resources. FastFeetGrinded, as a key recycling innovator, plays a key role in supplying the industry with secondary raw materials, meeting growing market demand and regulatory requirements for content Recycling. To meet demand, FastFeetGrinded operates from a 40,000-square-foot facility and plans to expand its facilities globally.

What are the brands saying about this initiative?

Following the request from the Dutch government, FastFeedGrinded started working with Asics to develop new shoes from recycled materials. Asics says that while it can create new shoes from recycled materials, they can’t be used for high performance.

“If we take our highest performance running shoe, making that entirely from circular recycled materials, it won’t have the same functional properties still,” Asics manager of sustainability Romy Miltenburg told Business Insider.

Miltenburg said Asics hopes to get to a point where it can manufacture high-performance shoes from recycled materials.

“Hopefully, it will not be just a cool side project, but something we can implement into the way we make shoes at large,” Miltenburg said.

Other major shoe manufacturers, like Adidas, are also working to make their shoes more durable by using plastic that floats in the ocean. Adidas released the Futurecraft Loop in 2021, a shoe made entirely from recyclable plastic and requires no glue. The plastic is ground into pieces before being heated and spun into the polyester used to create the shoe’s upper. The shoes use only one material and are designed to be recycled into future versions of the shoe itself.

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