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Nike Recycles Record-Breaking Marathon Shoe

Nike’s riding the heat of its record-smashing marathon shoe by reimagining the long-haul sneaker with a planet-friendlier spin.

Making good on its commitment to infuse better-for-the-Earth materials into its footwear, Nike launched the Air Zoom Alphafly Next Nature Monday. The Oregon athletic giant claims the new running footwear—which iterates on the Air Zoom Alphafly Next% Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge laced up to run a sub-two-hour marathon—doesn’t skimp on performance while shoehorning sustainable components into the race-ready product. “Athletes shouldn’t have to choose between performance and sustainability when selecting their running shoes,” Rachel Bull, senior footwear product director for Nike Running, said in a statement.

Nike, she added, challenged itself to “start with our most advanced innovation—the Alphafly.”

Recycled inputs reduce the Alphafly Next Nature’s reliance on resource-intensive virgin materials, showing up in the ZoomX midsole (70 percent recycled foam), the “propulsive” Flyplate (minimum 50 percent recycled carbon fiber) launching runners into each stride, and the ZoomX sockliner made from completely recycled PEBA, or polyether block amid, a type of thermoplastic elastomer.

Second-life sources also transform the product’s upper, where a minimum of 20 percent recycled TPU goes into the 3D-printed Nike Flyprint textile while Nike Flyknit employs waste-trimming techniques and incorporates 45 percent recycled polyester or more. Nike Grind Rubber, at least 10 percent in the mid heel and forefoot and 9 percent in the lateral heel, converts manufacturing scrap, unsellable products and worn-out sneakers into part of the Alphafly Next Nature’s outsole.

When it released its 2020 impact report earlier this year, Nike noted that unlike its apparel design and sourcing efforts, where sustainable inputs reached 59 percent last year from 19 percent in fiscal 2015, footwear suffered a backwards slide. Over the same timeframe, it said, sustainable shoe components totaled 29 percent, down two percentage points. Given the volume of shoes that it moves, and the sheer popularity of its products, Nike redoubled efforts to craft sustainably minded footwear.

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“Climate change has raised the stakes,” Bull said, adding that “innovation is no longer just about what’s on a runner’s foot.”

Indeed, Nike has injected this mindset into additional products, performance or otherwise. A February basketball launch marked a sustainable first for the brand, whose Cosmic Unity sneaker arrived as its first performance shoe featuring 25 percent recycled content by weight. Over the summer, the Beaverton behemoth debuted the Happy Pineapple Collection, substituting Ananas Anam’s agricultural-waste-derived Piñatex for traditional animal-skin leather.

Nike said its athletes put the Nike Air Zoom Alphafly Next Nature through more than 400 miles of product testing, and even the smallest details were reborn through green-colored glasses. Fully recycled polyester composes the woven labels and laces while a no-sew film features 50 percent recycled TPU. Nike also leaned on “data-informed designed” to revise the marathon shoe—little surprise given its leadership in data-driven hiring.

Rather than being a one off, the marathon shoe might serve as a preview of what’s to come, according to Bull. “Our learnings and advancements in circular design principles, waste avoidance, material innovation and pattern efficiency from making the Alphafly Next Nature will inform more models in the future,” she said.

Sensing the growing opportunity in the booming secondhand market, the sporting titan asserted control over its used-product pipeline with the debut of Nike Refurbished in the week before Earth Day. More than a dozen locations now resell revived Nike footwear categorized as “like new,” “gently worn” or “cosmetically flawed.” The initiative, Nike said at the time, aims to curb supply-chain waste and reverse salable products’ landfill fate.