The Loop: Recyclable Tennis Shoes


The most recent shoe release from adidas sports a brand new cyclical business model. Their 4 step process (shown above) takes old shoes that are sent back from consumers to 1) be cleaned, 2) ground up, 3) melted down, and then 4) reformed.

Plastic is extremely hard to recycle. For those that aren’t familiar with plastic processing, there are two distinct types: thermoset and thermoplastic. The basic information you need to know is that thermoplastics can be melted and reformed, whereas thermosets (hence the name) remain set in a physical state (aka no melting, they just burn). So although most companies have a great ambition to fully recycle, it’s extremely difficult to do so.

Even within the thermoplastics range, you have multiple forms. If you’ve never looked at the bottom of a plastic part, go to your kitchen cupboard and pick a piece of tupperware up. Within the recycle symbol stamped in the bottom, there is a number. Those numbers range from one to seven. Look at this website if you want to see the distinct breakdowns for those sections.

Because each plastic is typically pretty unique in composition, remelting and reprocessing is very tedious and costly. Adidas has figured out a pure plastic process that can be optimized to reduce waste and take full advantage of the benefits of a TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane). According to their webpage for the launch (check it out here), they state over 91% of plastic throughout the world is not recycled. I’m not surprised. As someone who has been around plastics more than the average person (hi dad), I’m well aware of how much effort and time it takes.

So, for adidas – especially as a company as large and global as it is – to promise recyclability within its own structure, I think it’s a great initiative. Here’s a wonderful video showcasing the process of it all. Quite honestly, this completely blows my mind. A wonderful design and a monumental shift in changing the way we consume.

Shoes are Changing the Long Term Fashion Game

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I’ve had my favorite pair of Chucks for almost 9 years now. So you could say I’m pretty loyal. But, I’ve recently started buying other sneakers. And I won’t say it doesn’t pain me to cheat on my worn-in classics, but man, there’s some cool stuff out there in the sneaker world that’s hard to resist.

Adidas had announced a few months ago, their goal to reach 100% recycled material usage for all of their shoes and clothes by 2024. This was a huge undertaking not only for a company that large, but by a brand that is so iconic and well-loved. When someone says recycled or sustainable, there is a small part in each of us that doubts a product’s ability to perform the same as a non-green one.

The green initiatives by large companies might not have to be as ambitious as Adidas’ however. Take Nike’s upcoming summer launch: The Plant Color Collection.

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All dyes for these shoes will be completely plant-based. Sounds stupidly simple – and it is. But sometimes the simplest ideas can be the most stunning. Not only do the preview photos show a particular craft-like feel to the designs, but I think it is starting to transform the way we even consume shoes.

There has always been an animus towards the fashion world for its fast-paced trends and this undying need to have the next best thing, right away. More often that not, these fads fade quickly, leaving consumers with piles of usually unused and out-of-fashion pieces. So how do these shoe launches change that?

To me, it signifies that the long-term vision we see fashion companies often disregard, is being reversed. I haven’t heard a lot of people talking about this, and quite honestly, I’m glad it isn’t blowing up. When something goes viral, the integrity and oftentimes the real soul of a product or movement disappears. It’s the cool thing to do, so everybody hop on the popular train.

Adidas and Nike show us that these sustainability goals are meant to provoke long-term conversations. Yes, some could argue that as money-making businesses, if they don’t keep churning out new designs and pushing their products on consumers, they’ll stop making money. But it gives me hope, knowing certain creative people are thinking of big ideas, and making something meaningful because of it.

The New “living shoe”

PUMA MIT Design Lab Biodesign Project breathing sneakers bacteria carbon insoles t-shirt sportswear biology

These shoes have bacteria in them. On purpose. Is your mind blown yet? Here’s a video to explain the different layers of the new shoe Puma has released in conjunction with MIT design.

Now, I’m a little creeped out by the fact that there are product-eating microorganisms in the sole of something I put on my foot. The idea alone though, makes me want to try it out.

What I want to know is, how did someone think of this?? Puma: let’s put bacteria in the soles of our shoes. MIT: we can do that.

I mean, c’mon that’s some space age stuff right there. I don’t really know what else to say, except I definitely want to see these in person one day!

The Possibilities are Endless

One of the biggest technology upgrades we’ve seen recently is 3D printing. For those of you who may (or may not) live under a rock, 3D printing has been all the rage in the world of product design and engineering especially. I highly recommend looking up a short video on processes. Click here if you want to see a quick time-lapse.

Now, since 3D printing became more accessible and somewhat affordable as of late, we’ve seen people (amateurs or companies) get a little more creative with the possibilities. One of my favorite applications is the adidas 4D shoe concept that utilizes a flexible plastic material, 3D printed with air gaps. So, instead of having a solid sole, the shoe has a membrane-like bottom. I can imagine it would be extremely comfortable, but I don’t know how practical it would be to clean.

Still, the idea is brand new and completely original. I look forward to seeing 3D printing become even more crazy. What if the shoe laces became a flexible membrane over the outside of a normal shoe frame? Would shoes ever become fully printed? Not sure how many materials are used in 3D printing right now, but I’m it’d be interesting to see a mono-material application for something that is usually broken up in its segments by different materials. In the meantime, things like this are more than just eye-candy; they push the boundaries and make more people think.