If the shoe doesn’t fit…

Nike kick-starts footwear recycling programme

If the shoe doesn’t fit…

Soon to be a basketball court

Thirty thousand people live and work in the shadow of Manila’s famous Smokey Mountain. Poor them: this is no national park or wildlife preserve, but a 20-metre high pile of urban waste.

Of course, it’s a fair bet that much of what’s been piled up was originally made in China. And China’s own leaders are also struggling with how to dispose of their rubbish – especially as their favoured option, to build more incinerators, is often running into local opposition (see WiC48).

Perhaps it’s timely, then, that the world’s biggest sports shoe company is taking steps to recycle in the country.

Nike is now taking shoe donations at its flagship locations and factory stores in China, regardless of brand. The deal is that customers who donate a pair of old trainers (or sneakers, in US parlance) can get a discount on the next pair they buy. The discount is worth around $7 for a pair of Nikes, and $4 for non-Nike footwear.

The sportswear giant has been taking in old shoes in the US for 20 years now (recycling more than 25 million pairs to date) but this is the first time its ‘reuse-a-shoe’ programme has been introduced in the world’s most populous country.

The Oregon-based company says it couldn’t start the programme earlier since it had mainly distributed through stores it doesn’t directly manage. Now that it also has its own 43-store retail network, it’s run out of excuses not to recycle.

So far Nike China is just stockpiling the worn-out sneakers, but its programme in the US goes further. Shoes there are ground down, separated into their constituent parts (rubber, foam and fibre) and remade into playground surfaces – anything from running tracks to football pitches. Of course,that takes a lot of footwear – 75,000 pairs go into just one athletics track (though basketball courts need just 2,500).

The company hasn’t yet committed to building up the same system in China. “Nike China is currently calculating the number of old shoes it’s likely to receive,” says the Southern Metropolis Weekly, “but it has not decided how to dispose of the recycled shoes, because it does not have a domestic processing plant that can process them.”

It’s hard to estimate how far Nike can take the programme in China. That’s because the economics of building things like basketball courts out of old shoes have remained somewhat opaque. But it’s probably not a good sign that the one ‘sneaker playground’ Nike has managed to complete in China – at Beijing’s Dongdan Park – is estimated to have cost five times more than standard facilities elsewhere in the country.

Of course, there is a clear PR dimension to the ‘re-use-a-shoe’ campaign that won’t do Nike any harm.

Young people in China are yet to develop the green consciousness of many of their international peers. But most expect it to flower eventually. Policymakers are also concerned about obesity among the young, so revamped sporting facilities in Chinese cities could earn Nike official plaudits too.

That could be useful as the US shoemaker jostles with German archrival Adidas and local powerhouse Li Ning for market share. For now, no other major footwear firm is finding similar uses for its discarded products.

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