"Shore to Shoes": How an NCSU student is turning coastal waste into sustainable footwear

plastic garbage on beach

Plastic pollution in our oceans is pernicious. Single-use items like water bottles, plastic bags, and—increasingly during this pandemic—gloves and disposable masks, get into our waterways through improper disposal and poor waste management. Ocean debris devastates marine life and eventually, as it breaks down into microplastics, even makes its way into our food and drinking water.

Before all that plastic even reaches the coast, emissions from petrochemical plants that manufacture plastic and other synthetic materials cause dire health issues for the neighboring communities, which are predominantly inhabited by Black and poor people (see Louisiana’s Cancer Alley).

But even as we stop using plastic grocery bags and switch to bamboo drinking straws to minimize our personal contributions to the plastic problem, we need to consider the other plastic products we use—like running shoes. Runners and running shoe enthusiasts can get extremely particular about shoe construction in terms of comfort and performance, comparing foam densities, outsole durability, mesh uppers, among other specifics; but we don't necessarily stop to consider how those materials came to be. The raw materials used to build our running shoes are essentially the same used to make the soda caps littering the beach, and the running shoe industry is just as detrimental to the planet as the millions of tons of trash in our oceans.

Genevieve Gholizadeh, a graduate student at NC State pursuing a Master’s degree in Industrial Design, has a plan to address both of these problems: Running shoes constructed from recycled waste found on the NC coast. We recently spoke with Genevieve about her project, "From Shore to Shoes," and the future of sustainabilty in the athletic shoe industry.

Some responses have been edited for brevity. 

How did you come up with this idea?

I came up with this idea over five years ago and have been refining it ever since. As a former basketball player, I was always interested in sneakers, and I also grew up taking trips to the North Carolina coast with my family every summer. Over the years, I started noticing small, tip-of-a-pen-sized flecks of a squishy white substance. At first, I thought they were some type of floating fish eggs but upon further investigation, I realized that they were bits of styrofoam. I was horrified that this extremely harmful, man-made product was floating on the ocean’s surface for marine life to consume. I wondered about this constantly which drove me to do lots of research on the ocean plastic epidemic and the more I researched, the more distressed and enraged I became. At the same time, I was learning about the dark side of the footwear industry. Aside from the industry’s notorious labor issues, it’s environmental impact was exigent. The more I researched ocean plastic and the shoe industry’s practices, the clearer the solution became. I decided to try to tap into the market to design a shoe and a closed-loop system that utilizes recycled plastic rather than virgin materials.

Are you a runner?

I have never considered myself to be a runner but this quarantine has helped me develop a strong appreciation of the sport. Aside from the physical exercise, the mental strength required to run long distances is unlike anything I have ever experienced. The state that runners reach in order to keep going is something that I am working to develop and transfer to other aspects of my life.

Can you give us a brief overview of the process used to turn waste materials into a functional shoe?

Since I am still in the research phase of my project, I have not yet established the exact process that I am going to use to transform waste materials into a functional shoe. At the moment, I am doing virtual and on-site research to determine which coastal materials are most harmful and how I can incorporate them into my design.

However, some companies who transform waste materials, such as plastic bottles, into products follow a process like this:

1.) Collect the bottles

2.) Sort by type and color

3.) Hot wash to remove labels and dirt

4.) Flake or pelletize

5.) Melt and extrude into yarn

6.) Knit and cut the yarn

There's trash everywhere. What drives your interest in using coastal debris specifically?

I sympathize with the marine life. Humans are the only life-form who generate [nonorganic] waste and our waste ends up in the marine habitat. We create something extremely toxic for our own convenience and then cast it aside for a vulnerable environment to deal with. I am an optimist, but I believe that we can do better.

Do you see a trend toward sustainability and climate-consciousness in sports tech or industrial design in general?

Yes, and I have had the opportunity to work with some amazing, forward-thinking designers throughout the course of my project. However, I think there are aspects of this trend that are consumer-driven. Many companies don’t appear to be producing sustainable and climate-conscious products out of corporate responsibility, but rather because there is a growing number of consumers who want to use their purchasing power to support companies with benevolent ethos. It breaks my heart and infuriates me at the same time some companies falsely claim to be creating products that are good for the planet and good for people when they are simply seeking monetary gain. This marketing tactic is called greenwashing. A company who is greenwashing might use buzz words like bio, certified green, earth-friendly, all-natural, and sustainable to appeal to the consumer without any proof of environmentally-sound practices. I witnessed this sort of deceit firsthand, which is why I am so passionate about creating a traceable and transparent supply chain with my shoes.

Are there other ways in which the running shoe industry can help combat the climate crisis?

I still have a lot to learn about the harmful effects of the running shoe industry on the climate. However, I do know that carbon emissions, wastewater, and the ultimate disposal of shoes are the main culprits in the shoe industry’s detrimental environmental impact. The fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world, and shoes are responsible for one-fifth of the that impact. More than 20 billion pairs of shoes are manufactured each year with 30 pounds of carbon dioxide emitted per shoe, equaling 600 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions each year.

Researchers at MITʼs Materials Systems Laboratory conducted a life-cycle assessment of a typical running shoe and divided the shoesʼ life-cycle into five stages: materials, manufacturing, usage, transportation and end-of-life. They found that the manufacturing stage contributed most, more than two-thirds, to the productʼs carbon footprint due, in large part, to the creation of synthetic materials, or “virgin materials.” 

Most factories lack the proper infrastructure to treat their wastewater, which means that this water, which is full of toxic substances like lead, mercury and arsenic, is dumped directly into surrounding waterways without treatment. This wastewater causes great harm not only to aquatic life but to the locals who depend on the water system to survive. 

The last step in a shoe’s lifecycle is end-of-life, or disposal. Unfortunately, sneakers are disposed of in environmentally-unfriendly ways such as incineration or landfilling. During decomposition in a landfill, the harmful chemicals used in the manufacturing process slowly seep into the surrounding soil which contaminates the soil and could eventually lead to contaminated drinking water.

All of that to say, I think manufacturers can help combat the climate crisis by:

  • Using recycled materials
  • Investing in water treatment processes
  • Developing sustainable ways to recycle the running shoe 

Anything else you'd like us to know about this project or the work you hope to do in the future?

My project this summer was made possible with a Women in Sports Tech (WiST) fellowship grant. I am one of 15 WiST Fellows who were awarded the grant to pursue summer projects in sports technology. The mission of Women in Sports Tech is to support women at all stages of their careers in the sports tech landscape. The WiST Fellowship Grants are the organization’s primary initiative which helps them open the door to sports tech for young women looking to enter the space, learn more about available opportunities and otherwise compete in a male dominated industry.

In my final year of grad school, I plan to develop my current project into my culminating project. I will continue working on "From Shore to Shoes" indefinitely with the intention of transforming it into a shoe brand with a mission deeply rooted in saving the oceans and surrounding environments


 

You can learn more about Genevieve's project here, and assist with her research by filling out this shoe survey!

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