Why Don’t Running Shoes Biodegrade?

Originally published at edge.org

Every manmade object — all the things in our homes and workplace — has an invisible back story, a litany of sorry impacts over the course of the journey from manufacture to use to disposal. Take running shoes.

Despite the bells and whistles meant to make one brand of running shoe appeal more than another, at base they all reduce to three parts. The shoe’s upper consists of nylon with decorative bits of plastics or synthetic leather. The “rubber” sole for most shoes is a petroleum-based synthetic, as is the spongy midsole, composed of ethylene vinyl acetate. Like any petrochemical widget, manufacturing the soles produces unfortunate byproducts, among them benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylene. In environmental health circles these are known as the “Big Four” toxics, being variously carcinogens, central nervous system disrupters, and respiratory irritants, among other biological irritants.

Those bouncy air pockets in some shoe soles contain an ozone-depleting gas. The decorative bits of plastic piping harbor PVC, which endangers the health of workers who make it, and contaminate the ecosystems around the dumps where we eventually send our shoes. The solvents in glues that bind the outsole to midsole can damage the lungs of the workers who apply it. Tanning leather shoe tops can expose workers to hexavalent chromium and other carcinogens.

I remember my high school chemistry teacher’s enthusiasm for the chemical reaction that rendered nitrogen fertilizer from ammonia (he moonlighted in a local fertilizer factory); we never heard a word about eutrophication, the dying of aquatic life due to fertilizer runoff that creates a frenzy of algae growth, depleting the water’s oxygen. Likewise, coal-burning electric plants seemed a marvel when first deployed: cheap electricity from a virtually inexhaustible source. Who knew about respiratory disease from particulates, let alone global warming?

The full list of adverse impacts on the environment or the health of those who make or use any product can run into hundreds of such details. The reason: most all of the manufacturing methods and industrial chemicals in common use today were invented in a day when little or no attention was paid to their negative impacts on the planet or its people.

We have inherited an industrial legacy from the 20th-century which no longer meets the needs of the 21st. As we awaken from our collective naivete about such hidden costs, we are reaching a pivot point where we can question hidden assumptions. We can ask, for example, why not have running shoes that are not just devoid of toxins, but also can eventually be tossed out in a compost pile to biodegrade? We can rethink everything we make, developing alternative ingredients and processes with far less — or ideally, no — adverse health or environmental impacts.

The singular force that can drive this transformation of every manmade thing for the better is neither government fiat nor the standard tactics of environmentalists, but rather radical transparency in the marketplace. If we as buyers can know the actual ecological impacts of the stuff we buy at the point of purchase, and can compare those impacts to competing products, we can make better choices. The means for such radical transparency has already launched. Software innovations now allow any of us to access a vast database about the hidden harms in whatever we are about to buy, and to do this where it matters most, at the point of purchase. As we stand in the aisle of a store, we can know which brand has the fewest chemicals of concern, or the better carbon footprint. In the Beta version of such software, you click your cell phone’s camera on a product’s bar code, and get an instant readout of how this brand compares to competitors on any of hundreds of environmental, health, or social impacts. In a planned software upgrade, that same comparison would go on automatically with whatever you buy on your credit card, and suggestions for better purchases next time you shop would routinely come your way by email.

Such transparency software converts shopping into a vote, letting us target manufacturing processes and product ingredients we want to avoid, and rewarding smarter alternatives. As enough of us apply these decision rules, market share will shift, giving companies powerful, direct data on what shoppers want — and want to avoid — in their products.

Creating a market force that continually leverages ongoing upgrades throughout the supply chain could open the door to immense business opportunities over the next several decades. We need to reinvent industry, starting with the most basic platforms in industrial chemistry and manufacturing design. And that would change every thing.

11 thoughts on “Why Don’t Running Shoes Biodegrade?

  1. I completely agree.

    I am serving in Peace Corps Panama and find myself perplexed at how much plastic people burn here. Almost everyone pours diesel or gasoline on their wood or pieces of plastic from jugs or plastic bags to start fires (they are slow burning and kindle fires well).

    It’s hard to ignore the reality that unless manufacturers change their manufacturing methods, the world (especially those that are uneducated and poor) will continue to use what is cheap, effective, and available.

    I am trying to find alternatives and can’t find one that seems to work that the people would buy into. If we are talking about making a change, how about creating a biodegradable, burnable plastic? Do they exist?

  2. Daniel,

    I agree with the need for supply chain transparency, and that a technology driven solution can work to create it, potentially unleashing immense new market forces. But I don’t think consumers alone can be the primary driver of the change, for a couple of reasons:

    1. Certainly some consumers may make the better choice in buying a more environmentally friendly product, but it is not clear that enough people can make the right decision and thus create the market forces you hope for. The harm done by each single purchase decision may be too small to affect purchasing in a major way.

    2. Even if consumers are motivated to make the right decisions, today, there may not be enough standardized and comprehensively comparable information about products to enable good decision making.

    I do believe that government can and should play a game changing role, by levying a tax on such environmental externalities. Such a tax would force the private and public sectors, as well as consumers, to engage in setting those standards. And it would create the right platform on which market forces could thrive.

    Rather than relying on each consumer’s individual purchase decision, it would incentivize companies to affect change in their own supply chains so as to pay a lower tax. That would unleash the right market forces – forces that and would only be strengthened by consumer purchasing decisions.

    A tax on environmental externalities can most easily be implemented with respect to carbon emissions, since it is easier today to put a price on those emissions (by using existing market signals.) I believe that a “carbon added tax” – like a VAT on carbon – would achieve the effect you are seeking.

    You can find more details on how a carbon added tax might work, here:

    Looking forward to reading more of your thinking.


  3. Before any change can occur, there has to be an interest to change. Unfortunately, there is no desire to develop an environmentally friendly plastic. Case in point, while studying chemical engineering I won a research fellowship. I wanted to examine the toxicity of plastics used in the automotive industry and with the findings develop a strategy for moving towards healthier alternatives. There was absolutely no interest from any company, even though my fellowship would pay the bulk of the costs. The car companies did not want to know how toxic their cars were. They did not care what kind of fumes the plastics used in interiors were emitting for drivers to breathe. And yet these same companies advertise and promote safety. They flaunt their hybrids and tell us Go Green.

    While I agree that tax incentives may assist the situation what is really needed is public awareness. People have to learn the real costs of corporate profits in terms of the environment, health and safety. The world is so interconnected now looking the other way because it’s “not in my backyard” doesn’t apply anymore. The entire world is in our backyard now.

  4. Daniel,

    How do we change consumerism? In this financial crisis with its economic pressure the consumer is likely to forgo their ideals. Conscious decisions to buy ecologically will be replaced with price judgements.

    As the economic squeeze tightens the environmental impact of the products that we purchase will become less important – the consumer will choose price over conscience.

    Consumerism needs to be changed from the roots up. Taxation and penalty for miscreants? Perhaps but aren’t they supplying demand? Change the demand – perhaps subsidies from Government to help ecological products onto the shelves and financial incentives for consumers to purchase – could this help to change entrenched consumerism and keep the consumer ecologically engaged and caring?

  5. I feel guilty about every piece of plastic I can’t recycle. I feel guilty about every piece of plastic I do recycle, because I am now aware of how much in dollars and resources it costs to recycle plastic. My basic unwillingness to unwilling to give up food I buy in the grocery store and shoes I buy at the mall and my lack of motivation to start a grass roots movement against the overpackaging of our goods and services means that I have quite a large toleration whenever I look at a trash can, whether it is brown or green.

  6. You are spot on mr. Goleman, with your vision about radical transparency! The funny thing is that I have been working on my master thesis on Industrial Ecology and looking at the potencial for using technology to convay LCA-data for every product to inform consumers both in the shopping-situation and at home where you use web-technology to link each transaction on your credit-cards to assess the toal environmental impact of your shopping. I just saw the cover of Times Magazine today and discovered that you were promoting the same concept in your new book. I’m sitting in NTNU wich is number 1 in europe when it comes to Industrial Ecology. The professor who is director of that programme at NTNU, mr. Edgard Hertwich told me in an email earlier today that he is a friend of Dara O’Rourke (GoodGuide.com). I’d like to speak with both of you about my ideas for it-solutions that can convay specific LCA-data througout the supplychains and all the way to the end user, based on my concep of a “digital Environmental Product Declaration”. You can call me at any time at (+47) 48 03 70 51

  7. I intend to use your ideas and the goodguide.com website in my gifted science classes here at my middle school in Michigan. I stumbled across the info in a recent Newsweek magazine and have decided to mesh it with my year-end ecology projects. Would certainly like to obtain and use the Ecological Intelligence book as well.

    It seems to me that one key component of behavior change is education, and I intend to do my part. My students care deeply about this sort of thing, and understand that where businesses see a profit is where they will put their effort. There is significant hope that behavior will change as their wired/wireless generation uses sites like goodguide to inform themselves as they buy items. Already, in one day, several of them have downloaded the free app into their iPhones, and have started exploring the program. They also report that their parents are willing to look things up using their phone-based web browsers as they go to purchase them in a brick-and-mortar store.

    Perhaps a label like the food guide labels that have been developed could also be developed for all products as a way of listing their impact for all to see. This could even just be a simple number in a particular spot on the label. This might encourage more manufacturers to be environmentally responsible, as they will see their competitors gain market share for doing just that. Sun Chips are apparently a pretty good example, according to my students, many of whom eat them because of their environmental record.

    Any help of suggestions that you can give to me as I seek to teach this between now and the end of the school year in June would certainly be appreciated and meaningful.

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