Footwear, particularly trainers, can contain up to 20 different materials, making it incredibly difficult to recycle. How are innovators working to address this challenge? We spoke to two material innovation experts.

Solene Roure, Co-Founder and Creative Director, Circle Sportswear
Solene Roure, Co-Founder and Creative Director, Circle Sportswear

Solene Roure is the Co-Founder and Creative Director of Circle Sportswear, a company that creates running gear following principles of circularity: “we make everything in Europe, from local materials as much as possible, prioritising recycled and renewable resources”. Solene oversees the creation of apparel collection and the SuperNatural Project, the first performance running shoe made from natural materials, in Europe with an end of life solution.

NFW is a platform of plastic-free performance materials. Luke Haverhals, Founder and CEO, works to scale all aspects of the business – from the technical foundation of the material platform and its sustainability impacts, to the unit economics, global scaling plans and resulting financial models.

We spoke to them to find out how Circle Sportswear and NFW are addressing the footwear challenge, unique partnerships they are seeing, exciting innovations, how we can achieve full circularity in textiles.

  • What challenges does footwear, particularly trainers, pose when it comes to recyclability?

SR: “We face many challenges, especially in performance footwear, because the industry is dependent on petroleum based plastics. Plant based materials are still fairly rare, and are often combined with persistent plastics. The amount of parts in a sneaker make it almost impossible to separate and recycle after use. Footwear needs to be hard wearing, and therefore we have to use toxic glues to keep it together. Which again is not ideal to keep them out of landfill after use. Petroleum plastic based footwear will take thousands of years to biodegrade into microplastics which are persistent. And as you know these microplastics are very dangerous for animals, plants and humans. In short, sneakers are not designed with end of life in mind, and it’s not ok.”

Luke Haverhals, Founder and CEO, NFW
Luke Haverhals, Founder and CEO, NFW

LH: “Modern footwear is typically a complex mixture of between 6 to 12 different types of synthetic materials — for example, polyester, nylon, polyurethane, ethylene-vinyl acetate. Importantly, even natural materials, like rubber and leather, are often mixed with synthetic petrochemicals of various sorts as well. A modern shoe is a very complex mixture of chemistries, and it is extremely challenging to ‘unmix’ the materials in a shoe at the end of life. Compounding the problem is that polyester, for example, has many different types of performance modifying chemistries mixed in – many of these chemistries are toxic. Simply put, petrochemical refineries can turn virgin fossil fuels into new synthetic materials, but they do not have suitable infrastructure to unmix and recycle the end products (like shoes) that these synthetic materials are used for. It would require literally trillions of dollars of capital to build the infrastructure based on today’s best knowledge even attempt to recycle all of the trainers that the global supply chain produces in a year.”

  • How are innovators working to address this challenge?

SR: “The materials makers and the footwear manufacturers have a front row seat to the problem, they are the first ones to take positive action. However, they are dependent on their clients: the brands to try new, more sustainable technologies. We created Circle Sportswear because it was the only way we could create sustainable running shoes, made for disassembly, using natural materials. In order to convince the materials suppliers to work with us, we pledge to be transparent about everything we do.

I am excited by the prospect of 3D printed shoes because that means they are easier to recycle/keep out of the landfill. The shoe industry is a slow moving one, so meanwhile all the progress with renewable natural materials, biodegradable polymers is top of mind.”

LH: “Some people are trying to simplify the shoe down to one or just a very few materials that can either be more easily separated or can be more easily repaired. There is merit in this. However, this does not address some of the fundamental toxicity issues with incumbent petro-based materials. Moreover, it’s tricky to preserve both performance and aesthetics in this process.

NFW grinding process condensed for visual effect
NFW grinding process condensed for visual effect

NFW is taking a completely revolutionary approach to building out a platform of natural, nontoxic, inherently circular materials that enable fully biobased footwear design. For example, our plastic-free leather alternative (MIRUM®), NFW’s naturally cured, nontoxic rubber outsoles (PLIANT™), and biobased foam (TUNERA™) solve some of the key material challenges for footwear designers. Because NFW’s materials are natural and nontoxic, it means the entire shoe made with our materials can be ground up and returned to nature. We are already pioneering this approach with our partners at UNLESS Collective. The processes to do so are elegant and cost effective, see the gif for example – a Degenerate is ground up and is ready to go back to nature in seconds or to other upcycling/recycling processes by NFW.”

  • What are the main blockers to adapting new more sustainable footwear?

SR: “MONEY AND TIME. The industry is more fast paced than ever, the margins are bigger than ever as we are all being hit with inflation. Players are not able to invest time and money to create the space for sustainable innovation. Creators need time to explore, experiment, test, fail and move forward. Innovation is seen as a luxury, yet luxury brands create no innovation. We depend on start-ups to create innovation, when the biggest, most influential brands in the world prefer to invest in short term profit. We need long term vision. Natural materials, for example, are more difficult to set up at first, but once the machine is rolling, the benefits are long term for everyone involved.”

LH: “The combination of product complexity and the supply chain’s reliance on synthetic chemistries is the biggest blocker. Mixtures of synthetic materials cannot be recycled together, and deconstructing post-consumer goods to separate synthetic materials to recycle individually adds exorbitant infrastructure costs, especially when scaled to global proportions. This is why NFW’s material platform is so revolutionary. It eliminates the problem of complexity at a product’s end of life. Our platform leverages ingredients and chemistries found in nature, so our materials can then safely return to nature – even when they are combined in a complex biobased product. By way of analogy, a tree contains a great deal of complexity, but the whole tree can return to the soil at the end of its life. Footwear that is made with NFW’s materials, which are safe for the planet and people, can also return to the earth.”

  • How could this barrier be overcome? How can we address these challenges to achieve full circularity for footwear, and the textile industry as a whole?

SR: “Right now, the only incentive to achieve circularity is our conscience. Everyone involved in launching Supernatural Runner have invested extra time, extra work, have sacrificed more lucrative opportunities, and have even bought the shoe more than a year in advance to support Circle. Sadly, that’s not enough. Start-ups are leading the way towards circularity, but the established players need to join in. There is a possible future where players share sustainability solutions, and most importantly, where governments create laws to support innovation, protect consumers, and incentivise everyone to make better choices, and better footwear.

I also think celebrities, especially celebrity designers, have so much power to influence change. They can lead by example, show it’s possible to do better. For example, I challenge people like Pharell, who has access to some of the best manufacturing teams in the world, to invest in making his product more sustainable. I also challenge shareholders, and leaders of big footwear brands to create space for sustainable innovation, look at it as an opportunity rather than inconvenience.”

LH: “The footwear industry – in fact, the entire field of material science – must come to terms with the true cost of high-carbon, toxic synthetic materials. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is an important tool for people to legislate, but the playing field must be level for all brands and every sales channel. Right now, online sales channels are often exempt from EPR while brick and mortar (physical) sales channels are under EPR rules. The industry has to get serious about charging brands and consumers the true cost of negative externalities, otherwise humans will keep doing what we have been doing for the past 60 to 70 years with global supply chains.”

Solene and Luke will join the ‘Innovation Spotlight // Reshaping the Future of Footwear: Design, Materials Selection and Recyclability’ along with Allen Zelden, Co-Founder of FUTUREVVORLD at Rethinking Materials on May 14-15 in London. Discover the full agenda.