It is estimated that some 330 million pairs of shoes are sold each year within the UK alone.
Sadly, most of these end up in landfills, with conservative estimates suggesting that the average pair takes more than 50 years to fully decompose.
Sports shoes, which are typically made from complex material mixes and component gluing, are hard to separate and are therefore some of the worst offending items in our wardrobes.
Adidas trainers are typically made from 12 materials, but this week in New York, the company unveiled the Futurecraft Loop, the first ever performance running shoe made entirely from one single material. And boy is this a sneaker to get excited about.
After nearly a decade of research and development, the German sports retailer has found a way to make every aspect of the shoe – from laces to woven upper and sturdy sole - from a plastic called Thermoplastic Polyeutherane (TPU). The beauty of this, a simple idea that’s actually incredibly technically advanced and has been six years in the making, is that the trainers are fully recyclable. Run a pair of Futurecraft Loop trainers to the end of their first life, and they can be returned to Adidas, who will then wash them and grind the material into pellets which can then be melted down to create material components for a new pair of shoes. No landfill. No waste.
"The concept is that this shoe is 100 per cent recyclable and also zero waste," says Tanyaradzwa Sahanga, a materials engineers from adidas's Futurecraft team, describing how they also managed to assemble the entire trainer without using any glue (a pollutant in the recycling process), thanks to the ‘Speedfactory’ technology - which uses heat and lasers to fuse the layers of the shoe – that Adidas has been using to construct its Boost sneakers since 2013.
The ‘first generation’ run of the shoes is made from 100 per cent ‘virgin’ (non-recycled) plastic. According to senior designer Ulisse Tanzini, the reason they didn’t use a recycled plastic from the outset is because a recycled TPU did not currently exist in a quality that was viable to work with. “You’ve got to make sure the first one is very pure so you can continue the process of making and remaking the shoes for as long as possible,” he explained. “If you start with a compromised material, the process wouldn’t last as long.”
Adidas, who have made a business pledge to use only recycled plastics by 2024, hopes that in launching the Loop before it’s 100 per cent perfect, they will inspire industry partners to innovate and help them find solutions. “This is a small step in a journey. We’re not saying this product is the final solution,” says Graham Williamson senior director of Adidas’s Future team. “We could have waited until we are at our goal of a performance shoe being created from 100% recycled materials but we will get there faster if we collaborate and show the world the journey we are embarking on.”
While 100 per cent of every Loop shoe can be recycled, the process isn’t one-for-one yet. Currently only 5-10 per cent of the recycled material from the old Loop shoe can be used to create a new one (the rest is used to surface running tracks and playgrounds), with the remainder of the construction requiring new virgin plastic to ensure the shoe retains its level of performance. Adidas hopes that, by innovating its design and recycling processes, it can improve on that ratio rapidly over the next few years, with a goal of eventually reaching 1:1 circularity. “We’re kicking the conversation off and saying its not working guys, how can we transform it?” says Sahanga.
The product, which Adidas hopes will go to market in Spring 2021, is therefore very much still in beta phase, and has been launched with a global testing programme in which 200 journalists, athletes and influencers from around the world have been given a pair of the shoes and tasked with wearing them as much as possible over the course of five weeks, before returning them ahead of the second-gen drop.
The Loop is the latest “Futurecraft” innovation from Adidas, an arm of the company that seeks to experiment publicly and push the footwear industry forward via innovation and conversation. “Futurecraft seeks to break new ground,” says Paul Gaudio, Adidas’s SVP of Creative Direction & Future, “bringing new materials and processes to bear against the many challenges and opportunities we face in helping athletes make a difference in their game, in their life and of course, in the world they live in - the world we all live in.”
Innovations from previous years include 3D-printed soles and the first performance trainers made entirely from marine plastic waste and salvaged deep-sea gillnets. The latter, a partnership with Parley for the Oceans, saw Adidas create 7000 ocean plastic shoes in 2015. This year, they will sell an impressive 11 million.
In order for the Loop project to take off in similar style, Adidas needs to find the right recycling company to partner with, one that’s prepared to work with fairly small batches of product initially. "For the recycling industry, this is peanuts," Sahanga says. "We are talking about one to five tonnes – that's nothing. These guys process in triple digit tonnes."
They’re also in the process of transferring the entire manufacturing process to factories in Asia (only the uppers of the first batch of Loops were made there, then shipped to Atlanta to be joined to soles), in order to be able to start making the product more economically and at scale. “We don’t want this to be a premium product,” says Williamson, “there should absolutely be pricing parity with other performance running shoes.”
Making and remaking the shoes efficiently and responsibly has its challenges, however the biggest task Adidas faces is how to close the circle in terms of consumer buying habits. What’s the best way to incentivise people to return their old trainers before buying a new pair? Will the Loop concept operate as a membership or subscription service? Or will you simply get a discount on the new if you bring back the old? Are these trainers, in reality, just on loan?
Adidas doesn’t have the answer yet, but has been piloting return bins in store, couriers and pre-paid return labels, in addition to partnering with buy-back company Stuffster, who have also recently had success working with John Lewis. “The circularity is the next chapter, and that will be about changing behaviours,” says Paul Gaudio, the global creative director at Adidas, who imagines Adidas could sell tens of millions of Loop shoes within three to five years. “This is a journey we are all on. This is a statement of intent.”
The concept of returning shoes is not without precedent. Nike has been running a reuse-a-shoe scheme called Grind since 1992, grinding old sneakers into pellets to create 18 different materials that are used to surface everything from running tracks and basketball courts, to astro turfs and playgrounds. The difference with the Loop project is that rather than being down-cycled, Adidas will use the trainers to make part (and eventually all of) an identical, albeit less pristinely white coloured, performance trainer. And this is a world first.
As Willow Smith, star of the Futurecraft Loop campaign, said at the launch in New York: “To be able to take your clothes to someone and have them reworked and reimagined into something else, without you having to buy something new is amazing. If all clothes could be like that it would be a revolution.”
For now, Adidas are still some way off achieving this circularity, but with the Futurecraft Loop, they just took a massive trainer-clad step in the right direction.
Adidas hopes to begin dropping limited runs of the Loop trainers in 2020, with a full commercial run scheduled to hit stores in Spring/ Summer 2021. For more information see adidas-group.com