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Have These Sneaker Companies Cracked the Code on Recyclability?

Rivet's 2020 Denim Circularity report takes a deep dive into how the global denim industry is plotting its circular future amidst a worldwide pandemic.

For the sneaker industry, recyclability has been something of a brass ring, dangling tantalizingly close but remaining just out of reach. Running shoes, after all, are glued and stitched together from dozens of disparate foot-cosetting and performance-enhancing components—textiles, foam, metal, rubber and plastic, just to name a few—that are designed to stay together, not fall apart.

Even efforts by sportswear behemoth Adidas to create a 100 percent recyclable performance sneaker, dubbed the Futurecraft.Loop, is still at the pilot stage. Most running shoes are currently downcycled, which means pulverizing them into a low-value mulch suitable only for paving playgrounds or creating athletic surfaces.

But a couple of shoe companies may have cracked, if not the formula, then a formula. Earlier this month, French sports-equipment firm Salomon announced the Index.01, a “ready-to-recycle” performance running shoe poised for release next spring.

Three years in the making, the shoe comprises just two materials that can be reclaimed separately after it’s run its last course: a recycled polyester upper and a nitrogen-infused thermoplastic polyurethane-based foam bottom called Infiniride. The upper can be diverted into new fabric creation, and the bottom can be ground into tiny pieces for the construction of new Salomon alpine ski boots and other products. To minimize material contamination, the components are connected using a water-based glue and recyclable polyester thread.

“Salomon’s unique expertise across multiple sports categories, coupled with a passion for the environment has led to the development of this exciting new shoe,” Michael White, the company’s president, said in a statement. “When the Salomon Index.01 was presented internally, the audience burst into spontaneous applause as the dream of a performance Salomon running shoe that is fully recyclable became reality.”

Salomon previously toyed with a concept shoe made completely of thermoplastic polyurethane, but it compromised performance for recyclability. The Index.01, on the other hand, “marries sustainability and performance in one” by delivering the “perfect amount” of absorption and rebound runners crave.

End-of-life management is also built into the product. When the Index.01 is ready for retirement, its owner can download and print a shipping label from the Salomon website for mailing the shoe back to the closest regional collection center, where it’ll be washed, dissembled and shipped to local recycling partners.

“It’s important to also be sustainable and consistent across markets in how we’re collecting the Index.01 shoes at the end of their life because we don’t want them traveling all over the planet,” said Olivier Mouzin, manager of Salomon’s footwear sustainability program. “That’s why, as a first step, we’ve set up collection centers in each region for consumers to ship their used shoes. From there, our recycling partners will begin the next step to recycle the used shoe materials locally.”

Meanwhile, Swiss high-performance running brand On is approaching the problem of footwear waste from another angle. On Tuesday, the company will launch a subscription service that brings “fully recyclable” sportswear to customers worldwide. Named Cyclon, the service allows subscribers to receive and wear “the latest in running sportswear” and then return end-of-life products back to the brand in exchange for the newest version. Once the used item is received, it’ll be fully recycled by On, which will reuse the materials to create new running gear.

On says that its first-of-its-kind service incentivizes consumers to “actively contribute” to the company’s commitment to drive zero waste.

“The Cyclon service is a groundbreaking new way to become more sustainable, while also ensuring the running performance is never compromised for our customers,” On co-founder Caspar Coppetti, said in a statement. “Customers who sign-up today will be the first ones to get the latest in sustainable running technology.”

The first Cyclon product will be a fully recyclable high-performance running shoe, also named Cyclon. Weighing in at an ultraweight 7 ounces, the Cyclon comprises more than 50 percent bio-based materials made from castor beans, boasts plush cushioning and promises an energy return that is among the highest for an On product.

“Making a fully recyclable, performance running shoe is a huge accomplishment, one that we’re immensely proud of,” said On co-founder Olivier Bernhard. “But we went a step further. We wanted to show that sustainability and performance go hand in hand. The subscription service enables runners to not only receive one of the highest performing shoes we’ve engineered, but to continuously receive the best and most up-to-date shoe technology coming out of our lab.”

Customers in select countries can sign up for Cyclon at on-running.com/cyclon for a deposit of $29.99. The shoe will be available exclusively for subscribers in the latter half of next year.

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