Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Soft Shoe Shuffle

It's the time of year when, if you're anything like me, you're going through your wardrobe, moving winter clothing up the rail and realising that it's time to invest in a new pair or two of warm, waterproof boots. Any old footwear that's looking a bit tired gets bundled up and dropped off at a recycling hopper. There. I have done my duty, and the planet is that little bit happier. I can go spend cash on a new pair of Timberlands with a clear conscience.

Sadly, it doesn't quite work like that. Shoes are enormously complex pieces of clothing, containing up to 40 types of material, many of which have been glued or sewn together. It's nearly impossible to break them down into their constituent parts so that the material is fit for recycling. Which means unless the shoes you donate are in a good enough condition to sell on, they're just going to end up in the bin. I was horrified to find out that 95% of shoes bought in the UK end up in landfill, a figure that includes the pairs that you give to charity.

It all seems hopeless. But scientists at Loughborough University's Innovative Manufacturing and Construction Research Centre (IMCRC) think they've finally found a way to break shoes down into a range of recyclable materials.

They've developed a multi-stage process, which involves sorting the shoes into different types, removing metal eyelets, then shredding the shoes. They are rendered down to granules which can then be graded using the weight and size of the fragments. The end result: four streams of materials, including rubber and fabric, which can be used in all sorts of other products, including components for new shoes. You've got it: closed-loop manufacturing.

The team at Loughborough are also working closely with footwear manufacturers like Clarks and Nike to design shoes that are easier to break down and recycle. Matthew Turner, Social Resposibility Manager at Clarks says of the project:

"The work of the IMCRC team at Loughborough will both inform our approach to footwear design, and show us new ways to recycle shoes when they have no further use. All in all, we believe it will be another step towards the goal of zero landfill."

A highly laudable aim, and a project that we here at The Pier will be watching with interest. I wonder if I can donate my worn-out trainers to them?

For more info, take a look at the IMCRC page.

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