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How EU Footwear Plans to Improve Waste, GHGs and End-of-Life Recycling

In an industry inundated with “eco” labels, what does “eco” mean exactly?

Even the European Union’s Ecolabels, critics say, often fall short of measuring environmental indicators such as carbon emissions. Shoes are particularly tricky to assess because they’re composed of myriad parts. A typical athletic sneaker, for instance, can include dozens of materials, including leather, foam, textiles, metal, rubber and wood. Each has its own individual sourcing, production and end-of-life impacts.

Enter Life GreenShoes4All, a new initiative that is developing a methodology, known as the Footwear Product Environmental Footprint (PEF), to help footwear manufacturers measure the environmental performance of their products in a comprehensive, data-supported way.

Led by the Portuguese Footwear Technology Centre (CTCP) and the European Footwear Confederation, and co-funded by the European Commission, the project will also work to generate efficient eco-design, recycling and manufacturing techniques that can be employed sector-wide.

The PEF methodology, Maria José Ferreira, R&D director at CTCP and the project’s coordinator, told World Footwear recently, aims to improve upon existing methods by identifying potential environmental-impact categories, setting minimum data-quality requirements and establishing “clearer technical instructions” for life-cycle assessments (read: less fudging).

Life GreenShoes4All, she noted, will propose “more tangible” targets on raw materials selection, greenhouse-gas emissions and waste polymers such as plastics, foams and rubber. It will also “test and demonstrate” new recycling routes in the EU footwear value chain to recover raw materials for reuse and reduce waste. (Shoes, because of the multitudes they contain, are notoriously difficult to recycle.)

The project will involve research organizations, training centers, national footwear associations and footwear and footwear component manufacturers from Belgium, Portugal, Romania and Spain.

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In addition to creating—and then implementing—a first draft of Product Environmental Footprint Category Rules (FECR) for companies in the EU footwear sector, Life GreenShoes4All will also seek to validate sustainable business models for recycling plastic in footwear, reduce greenhouse-gas emissions of new shoe manufacturing by 15 percent and cut back polymer waste in shoe production by at least 70 percent.

By 2020, when the project is poised to conclude, Ferreira and company say they hope to incorporate FEFCR in a pilot for different footwear styles produced in the EU. Any and all other stakeholders will “then be welcome onboard,” she said.