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Circular Shoes: How Footwear Component Manufacturers Are Ramping Up Recycling

Historically, there hasn’t been a circular path for post-consumer footwear. But some component and material manufacturers are ramping up recycling capabilities with an eye toward closing the loop.

Building out circular solutions for footwear could have a massive environmental impact. Just in the United States, it is estimated that 300 million pairs of shoes get tossed each year—almost one pair per person. Many of the materials that make up footwear are plastic, which sits in landfills for decades or centuries before it breaks down.

Recycling footwear is a complex endeavor, in part because of how shoes are assembled. A single pair of shoes could be comprised of 20 or more unique components, making it more difficult to separate these materials to process them for reuse. Because of these considerations, creating recycling paths for footwear begins at the raw material stage and needs to consider everything from assembly to post-consumer logistics.

Sourcing Journal spoke with BASF, OrthoLite and Vibram, which are among the component and raw material companies looking to remold the footwear industry in a circular direction. “Our aim is to close cycles and use products and resources in the best way possible across the entire value chain,” said Dr. Mark Zhu, market segment manager for footwear, sports and leisure at BASF Performance Materials North America. “Behind this idea is a change away from the linear model of ‘take, make, dispose’ to a system of closed loops powered by renewable energy.”

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OrthoLite

For insole manufacturer OrthoLite, circularity is far from a new trend. When the company began about 25 years ago, it launched with an insole that included recycled rubber. Today, all of Ortholite’s hundreds of formulations have at least some recycled content, ranging from 5 to 98 percent. “It’s been part of our DNA since day one to be focused on delivering not only comfort and performance, but sustainable solutions along with a focus on circularity,” said CB Tuite, chief sales officer at OrthoLite.

OrthoLite sources post-production outsole rubber waste from footwear factories. Although this use of waste comes with a sustainability benefit, Tuite calls the addition of rubber OrthoLite’s “secret sauce” that gives its insoles performance benefits, such as improved rebound.

Along with rubber, over the years OrthoLite has used its own foam waste as a feedstock, grinding it to a fine mesh size so that it can bind with virgin polyurethane open cell foam. One of the company’s products, OrthoLite Recycled, has 98 percent post-production waste, with bindings making up the other 2 percent of materials. This creates a fully recycled material, but it has some limitations. Because the recycled materials are compressed, there is not as much rebound. Per Tuite, Recycled is a better fit for applications such as strobel or as a base layer underneath other recycled insoles with stronger rebound.

Another circular creation, the Hybrid insole, blends 5 percent recycled rubber with 15 percent post-production waste, which Tuite says gives it equal performance to a non-eco insole. Hybrid has become a popular choice among brand partners, and Tuite estimates that Hybrid is used in about half of OrthoLite’s annual volume of 500 million shoes.

Part of what has helped Hybrid catch on is its price point, since it is a cost-neutral sustainability upgrade. OrthoLite is able to keep costs down through vertically integrated production and on-site recycling facilities.

OrthoLite Recycled Hybrid
From left, OrthoLite Recycled and Hybrid Courtesy

Some new introductions from OrthoLite will also offer solutions at a range of price points to make sustainability more accessible. “Ortholite has always been a premium branded component, and it’s important that we maintain the integrity of our brand with everything we introduce, so it’s always going to be a premium quality,” said Tuite. “That said, we are also introducing more value options, because we understand the importance of price.”

Through its recycling efforts, OrthoLite is able to keep 200 tons of foam waste and 300 metric tons of rubber from entering landfills each year. Up until now, OrthoLite has been working with post-production waste, but the company is making moves to help brands launch post-consumer take-back programs. Since OrthoLite is primarily a B2C company, getting brands involved is necessary to facilitate a customer-facing circular program. While the brand would be handling the infrastructure around collecting shoes, OrthoLite would lead the charge in deciding how footwear is recycled or composted. “The opportunity is there; it’s really about building the right infrastructure to establish take-back programs to recycle and reuse,” said Tuite.

One complexity in planning post-consumer breakdown processes is material choice. Tuite noted that using materials that can all be recycled or composted would streamline circular solutions. “The more we can simplify the process, the more we can unify material solutions and be consistent in terms of the recycled content, the material types, the faster the take-back programs will be initiated,” he said.

In service of circular paths for footwear, the company will soon be launching new biopolymers and recycled polymers that can be used in all parts of shoes. These will be fully recyclable or compostable.

OrthoLite is aiming to reach the target of zero waste by 2025. Tuite says that the company is on the trajectory to meet this goal, courtesy of its recycling efforts and other initiatives that reduce waste, such as automated cutting and foaming in production.

With sustainability measures, there are always expenses involved, but Tuite wants brands to consider expenditures as investments rather than costs. He explained that although circularity does require outlay, for OrthoLite, it has helped grow the business. “We will continue to make investments in efficiencies and in automation and in recycling, because for us as an organization, not only is it the right thing to do environmentally, but it’s the right thing to do from a business standpoint because we’ve proven that making those investments will have a return,” he said.

Vibram

Like OrthoLite, shoe and sole manufacturer Vibram has been recycling rubber for decades. In 1994, Vibram introduced EcoStep, a compound that includes 30 percent post-industrial rubber.

The recently launched Vibram EcoStep Evo takes this a step further with at least a 30 percent reduction in virgin raw materials along with a new compound that improves performance, durability and grip.

Vibram EcoStep

As Vibram looks to get to zero waste, it is simultaneously focused on maintaining its performance standards. Vibram tried using external rubber waste from other companies, but found that it decreased the performance of its soles. Instead, the company is focusing on reusing its own post-industrial rubber, enabling it to cut down on waste while also maintaining quality standards.

Vibram’s factory in Albizzate, Italy, recycles and reuses 81 percent of its waste, and 15 percent of waste is decomposed via thermo-valorization. This leaves just 4 percent of waste that is disposed. The company is working to shift its other owned manufacturing sites and OEM production facilities toward this same model.

One of the challenges Vibram has faced in its quest to eliminate discarded materials is being able to directly sell its own rubber waste. “Legislation is not helping to sell waste as secondary raw materials for others,” said Marco Guazzoni, sustainability director at Vibram. “We need to pass through specialized companies which take our waste and eventually resell it. Today only the companies which manage waste are entitled to resell the waste, but we as the business where the waste originates are not.”

For post-consumer soles, Vibram is considering uses and partnerships with other industries. For instance, soles could be recycled into cushioned flooring. The company is also exploring the possibility for soles from shoes to be separated from other waste, allowing the rubber to be reused for applications such as playgrounds and athletic pitches. The company is aiming to have 60 percent of its soles recycled at the end of life by 2022.

“We have many projects and processes to improve circularity internally and externally, and on top of this we are leading groups to influence the footwear business in that direction,” said Guazzoni.

Vibram is thinking about the entire lifecycle of its shoes. The company’s soles are designed to be durable, extending the time of use. Vibram has also supported shoe repair, working with local cobblers to train them on resoling techniques and technologies. A recently launched campaign, “Repair If You Care,” encourages consumers to take their worn-out shoes to a repair shop rather than throwing them out.

BASF

Creating a circular path for post-consumer footwear is going to require participation from brands. Taking this into account, chemical company BASF has been working with footwear labels to design shoes that are fit for recycling.

BASF’s ChemCycling project uses waste plastic as the feedstock for a recycling process. Plastic is turned into the raw material pyrolysis oil, which can be used instead of fossil fuels. There are limits to what types of plastic can be put through mechanical recycling, but ChemCycling creates a secondary path for hard-to-recycle materials, including about 70 percent of mixed stream plastic waste.

Timberland BASF
Timberland Pro Reaxion shoe made with BASF materials Courtesy

Among the components that BASF supplies to footwear manufacturers are soles, uppers and adhesives. The company is working with footwear OEMs to supply them with raw materials that are fit for ChemCycling so that shoes can be recycled at the end of life. Some of the raw materials that have successfully been recycled by BASF include thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), expandable TPU and bio-based polyurethane.

Since ChemCycling is still in its early stages, post-consumer footwear is being used as a feedstock, but footwear manufacturers have not yet used any ChemCycling-created materials in their shoes. However, the fossil fuel alternative created by ChemCycling could be used in footwear applications in the future.

BASF Infinergy
BASF’s Infinergy material (eTPU) that can be recycled Courtesy

By 2025, BASF is aiming to use 250,000 metric tons of raw materials that come from recycling or waste streams in place of fossil fuel-derived inputs per year. It is also eyeing 17 billion euros ($20.2 billion) in sales of its circular solutions by 2030, doubling its current figure.

Zhu explained that while mechanical recycling might keep costs more in line with virgin inputs, the quality could be lower. On the other hand, chemical recycling creates materials that have identical properties and performance to conventional materials. And the cost for recycled materials may change as post-consumer reuse ramps up. “As more shoes are recycled, the supply chain gets bigger and more competitive, which should drive innovation and competition to drive costs down,” he said.

Working together

Scaling footwear circularity is going to take collaboration. Tuite sees brands as well as tier one and two factories aligned toward finding solutions, making investments less risky since there will be a demand.

BASF is a founding member of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, which began in 2019 with a mission to tackle plastic waste and find solutions for plastic at end of use. Collectively, the more than 50 members have pledged $1 billion toward the initiative, with plans to invest $1.5 billion over five years.

“A circular post-consumer life for shoe material needs joint effort from shoe brands, shoe manufacturers, material suppliers and stakeholders in the entire supply chain related to recycling,” said Zhu. “Instead of waiting for the readiness of the recycling infrastructure, designing for recycle starts to become a new trend in the market.” In addition to BASF’s work to promote materials that can be chemically recycled, the company is encouraging manufacturers to create footwear that is easily disassembled.

In its own collaborative move, Vibram is part of an industry program that promotes the use of platforms such as Europe’s M3P that enable the exchange of raw materials and waste to foster circular systems.

Another piece of the puzzle, per Zhu, is creating business models that incentivize consumers to recycle their shoes at the end of use. “Many leading footwear brands are developing and implementing the ‘take back program’ to ensure all used shoes can be collected and sorted easily.”

While encouraging consumers to recycle is one way to tackle shoe waste, another key way to reduce footwear’s impact comes down to changing consumer behavior at point of purchase. “One of the most important points right now is to educate consumers in buying shoes only when they really need them rather than following fast fashion trends, which sees much more waste of footwear and clothing,” said Guazzoni.