How sneakers using ‘recycled’ plastic from big brands like Adidas and Nike could actually be making the planet worse

SEX and style still sells in the multi-billion pound sneaker industry – but for many consumers shoes now also have to save the planet.

For decades, big brands have left a huge carbon footprint, with six billion pairs produced every year, 90% of which end up in landfill and take up to 1,000 years to degrade.

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Six billion pairs of trainers are produced each year and leave a huge carbon footprintCredit: Alamy

That’s why the biggest names have spent huge amounts of money on glossy ads featuring beautiful people in beautiful places wearing ‘eco’ products made with recycled materials.

But a new documentary airing on Channel 4 on Monday reveals it’s just ‘greenwashing’ designed to make money for companies like Nike and Adidas – and far from cutting plastic production, they might actually stimulate it.

Journalist Darcy Thomas said: “With consumers more environmentally conscious than ever, sneaker brands have promised to clean up their act. Clever promotions create a vision of an eco-friendly future.

“When it comes to protecting the environment, every sneaker brand promises the earth, but there are no easy solutions – except maybe buying fewer sneakers.”

“Degraded by the Sun”

The UK now spends nearly £4billion a year on trainers and the average person here owns seven pairs.

The documentary Dispatches The Truth About Nike And Adidas shows how the big names suggest that our thirst for sneakers is not just the problem but the solution.

Adidas boasts in adverts that it creates the shoes – costing £75 a pair – using plastics that have been recovered from our polluted seas by environmental group Parley For The Oceans.

But Darcy has discovered that less than 20% of the uppers of sneakers in her Parley collection are made from recycled plastic – and a small portion actually comes from the ocean.

He said: ‘Parley is recovering plastic that has been washed up on the beach. But most of this plastic cannot be made into sneakers because it is too degraded by the sun and the sea.

“He says plastic is intercepted from beaches and coastal communities before it reaches the oceans.

“In other words, it’s plastic that ‘could’ end up in the ocean.”

As part of the investigation, Darcy traveled to the Maldives, where the Parley business is based due to the island nation’s importance to the global marine ecosystem.

One of the country’s environmental activists, plastics expert Afrah Ismail, said: “The element of greenwashing is there because you say it’s ocean plastic and to the layman that basically means that it comes from the ocean.”

In fact, he discovered that, in some cases, the Parley organization obtains its plastics directly from tourist resorts in the Maldives, where plastic bottles of all shapes and sizes are widely used in its bars and restaurants.

He visited one of its larger resorts and discovered that it was part of the same company that owned a bottled water manufacturing plant on the island.

In other words, the partnership between Parley and some stations seemed to be fueling the creation of more plastic.

The reporter Darcy and the bags of plastic waste

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The reporter Darcy and the bags of plastic waste1 credit
90% of sneakers end up in landfill and take up to 1,000 years to degrade

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90% of sneakers end up in landfill and take up to 1,000 years to degrade

An Adidas spokesperson said: “The use of recycled materials at Adidas is much more than our products made with Parley.

“Over 90% of the polyester used in our entire product line is recycled polyester.

“We’re not saying it’s ‘the solution’. In fact, we actively say that this is only a first step. This is clearly stated on our website and in our marketing.

“We are increasing the percentage of recycled materials in our products as new solutions become available.”

But Adidas isn’t the only brand to use recycled plastic in surprisingly low amounts.

Other big names, including Puma and Asics, have also been shown to use around 20% of their materials from recycled sources.

Other brands have struck a better balance, including French Veja sneakers, which use materials made from 30 and 100 percent recycled polyester and recycled plastic bottles.

The cotton or other fabrics he uses are often organic or recycled, and he has developed a “vegan” material to replace elements of sneakers that would normally be leather or plastic.

On the other hand, they are more expensive, ranging from £95 to £120.
Meanwhile, Nike has taken a different approach to recycling. He introduced an initiative called Grind, where people can bring in their coaches to be ground up and reformed into materials for playing surfaces and sports fields.

‘Just throw it in the trash’

This is already a dodgy business. The documentary reveals that most Grind gear actually comes from industrial waste, not old trainers.

And the £130 million of Grind gear produced over the last 30 years is just 0.01% of the weight of new trainers produced each year.

Darcy was also shocked when he approached the manager of NikeTown’s flagship store in London and was told that they no longer recycle old sneakers.

He said: ‘In fact, no store in the UK accepts recycling trainers.

“Nike Grind hasn’t raced in the UK for years.

“They suggest I take my sneakers to a charity shop or else they’ll throw them in the trash.”

Following the Dispatches program, Nike removed the Grind offer from its UK website.

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A Nike spokesperson said: “Our recycling and donation program is currently available in 78 stores across Europe and we are working to increase our scale.

“The scheme is not currently available in the UK due to the complexity of cross-border trade which limits our ability to move products to our main recycling and sorting facility in the EU.”

  • The truth about Nike and Adidas is on Channel 4 on Monday at 8:30 p.m.

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