As engineers work to find new ways to pull some of the trillions of pieces of plastic trash out of the ocean, companies are coming up with new uses for it. Like soap bottles, surfboards, and now shoes: Adidas just released a new prototype for a sneaker woven entirely out of ocean trash.
The sample shoe was made from illegal gill nets dredged up from the ocean by the nonprofit Sea Shepherd. “It’s a fishing net that was spanning the bottom of the sea like a wall, and killing pretty much every fish passing by,” says Cyrill Gutsch, founder of Parley for the Oceans, a new Adidas-supported nonprofit that is helping the company develop a larger strategy for fighting ocean waste. “They confiscated this net, and we’re bringing it back to life.”
Adidas is knitting the shoe using the same innovative technology they use to create Primeknit shoes with zero waste. “Knitting in general eliminates waste, because you don’t have to cut out the patterns like on traditional footwear,” says Eric Liedtke, Adidas Group executive board member of global brands. “We use what we need for the shoe and waste nothing.”
For now, they’ll turn to sources like fishing nets and easier-to-reach beach trash for their material source; Liedtke says they have no worries about finding enough to supply the line of shoes when it launches later this year. They won’t be using the tiny fragments of plastic that swirl, soup-like, in places like the Pacific Gyre, though that could change as new technology becomes available. “If you want to take it out of the ocean, you can trawl for days and days and get a tiny spoonful of plastic,” Gutsch says. “At this point we didn’t see a feasible technology. What we believe now is that you can instead avoid the microplastic that’s coming into the system.”
The bigger aim of the program is not just to recycle plastic into shoes, but to help avoid plastic waste in the first place. Parley for the Oceans is working on new technology both to intercept plastic trash–and to change plastic itself.
“We’re going to end ocean plastic pollution only if we’re going to reinvent the material,” says Gutsch. “We need a plastic that is not the current plastic–it’s a design failure. It causes a lot of problems. Plastic doesn’t belong in nature, it doesn’t belong in the belly of a fish, it doesn’t belong out there. The ultimate solution is to cut into this ongoing stream of material that never dies, is to reinvent plastic.” Because without a reinvention, the plastic still exists in your shoe, which, presumably, you’ll throw out again at some point, putting the plastic back into the system–and potentially the ocean.
A green chemist on the organization’s staff is beginning development of a plastic alternative that could dissolve harmlessly if it was thrown out into nature. “That’s the ultimate vision, but it’s a moonshot,” he says. “Right now it’s far away. So we do what we can. That means we’re going out there and cleaning up as much as we can. We’re saving life. Every piece of plastic that we collect, every single piece, can save a bird, a turtle, even a whale.”
As Adidas adapts the material, it may eventually start to include it in other products. “We don’t have to limit ourselves,” says Lietke. “We can put this in T-shirts, we can put this in shorts, we can put this in all kinds of stuff.”