A new report claims a footwear recycling scheme failed to turn old shoes into useful new products.
A program developed by materials science company Dow and the government of Singapore promised to recycle used footwear for industrial applications including playgrounds and running tracks. But Reuters tracked 11 pairs of donated running shoes using hidden devices, and found that they ended up far from their intended destination, raising questions of greenwashing.
Donated between July 14-Sept. 9 at different locations across Singapore, Reuters followed the shoes’ six-month journey. The pairs were first traced to Yok Impex Pte Ltd., a Singaporean secondhand goods exporter that said it was tasked with retrieving shoes from the program’s donation bins and transporting them to a local warehouse. However, as Reuters continued to track the footwear on its journey, the pairs traveled to disparate locations across Singapore and Indonesia—some to street bazaars for sale, and others to remote locations that reporters couldn’t access.
“While the sample was small, the fact that none of these shoes made it to a Singapore recycling facility underscores weaknesses in the system,” Reuters reporters wrote. The findings were shared with Dow earlier this year, and the petrochemical maker said in mid-January that it had opened its own investigation alongside state agency Sport Singapore, French sporting goods retailer Decathlon, Standard Chartered bank, ALBA W&H Smart City Pte. Ltd (Alba-WH), a Singapore-based waste management company and B.T. Sports Pte Ltd, a local outfit tasked with shredding the footwear. Last week, Dow told Reuters on behalf of all partners that after concluding the investigation they would remove Yok Impex from the project.
The footwear’s appearance in Indonesia’s secondary market also violates law. In 2015, the Indonesian Ministry of Trade outlawed the importation of used clothing to manage hygiene and prevent disease, while protecting the local textile industry from outside competition. A state official in the office of Consumer Protection and Trade Control told Reuters that the import market for used apparel and footwear is still worth millions annually. Meanwhile, bazaar vendors reported that pairs imported for sale routinely end up trashed, adding to the country’s mounting waste problem.
Dow said the Singapore shoe recycling project has improved, however. A sports facility is under construction using the made-from-shoes material in its surfaces, and a new soccer complex features a running track made from pre-owned footwear. The projects will use recycled material produced through the partnership, it said in January.
“The project partners stand by this important project, which is a recycling program to collect used shoes from the public to be grounded into recycled shoe materials locally,” Dow spokesperson Kyle Bandlow told Sourcing Journal. “We have started to see infrastructure builds resulting from the nearly 10,000 kilograms (22,000 pounds) of recycled shoe materials so far, which includes Kallang Football Hub and a sport facility under construction in Jurong Town.”
Bandlow added that the project partners “do not condone any unauthorized removal or export of shoes collected through this program,” and confirmed that the involved parties will no longer work with Yok Impex. “The partners are in the process of securing another company to handle the collection of the shoes as part of this shoe recycling project and are committed to safeguarding the integrity of the collection and recycle process,” he said.
In its report, Reuters detailed previous investigations into Dow’s material recycling schemes, including an Idaho-based program that claimed to use advanced technology turn plastic waste into clean fuel and an India effort that aimed to do the same with trash from the Ganges River. Reuters said the waste from the former project was burned to power a cement plant, and the latter was shut down due to persistent equipment malfunctions.