SINGAPORE — A Reuters investigation has raised serious questions about a shoe recycling program launched by chemical company Dow in partnership with the Singapore government, which aims to recycle the rubberized soles and midsoles of donated shoes to build new playgrounds and running tracks in Singapore.
The investigation by the international news agency, which was published on Sunday (25 Feb), comes as environmental groups say chemical companies are making exaggerated or false claims about recycling to burnish their green credentials and undermine proposed regulations to rein in the soaring production of plastics used in single-use packaging and fast fashion.
In 2020, the National sports agency Sport Singapore (SportSG) announced a pioneering partnership with Dow, a major producer of chemicals, to transform shoes contributed by members of the community into jogging tracks, fitness corners, and playgrounds. The ‘Others see an old shoe. We see the future.’ project aims to recycle 300,000 pairs of used sports shoes and divert them away from the landfill. Initially, the project was meant to run for only three years but was turned into a permanent used shoes collection drive in 2021.
All shoes donated by Reuters ended being exported
To test if the project works as it should, Reuters deposited 11 pairs of shoes in donation bins around Singapore over a six-month period.
All the footwear was placed in different donation barrels around Singapore between 14 July and 9 September last year.
GPS trackers were placed in all of them to track the fate of donated shoes.
However, none of these shoes was ultimately turned into exercise paths or children’s parks in Singapore as promised.
Instead, nearly all of them ended up in the hands of Yok Impex, a Singaporean second-hand goods exporter, which was hired by a waste management company involved in the recycling program to retrieve shoes from donation bins for delivery to the company’s local warehouse.
According to the Reuters report, the tracking data showed that the shoes had been shipped across the Singapore Strait to Batam Island, then on to Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, and other parts of the country, where they were sold in second-hand clothing shops.
Reuters journalists were able to recover three pairs of shoes from crowded bazaars in Jakarta and Batam. The other pairs ended up in locations in Indonesia that were too remote for Reuters to track down in person. In three cases, the GPS trackers stopped sending signals after they reached Indonesia.
While the sample was small, Reuters notes that the fact that none of these shoes made it to a Singapore recycling facility underscores weaknesses in the system.
Dow says 10,000kg of recycled shoe material produced so far
Dow told Reuters the Singapore shoe project was making progress. A sports facility under construction in Jurong, a district in western Singapore, will use recycled shoe material in its surfaces, Dow said in its January statement.
The company also pointed to Kallang Football Hub, a new soccer complex whose running track purportedly was the first in Singapore to be made from recycled shoe granules. Dow said these builds would use the 10,000 kilograms of recycled shoe material that have been produced through the Singapore recycling project so far.
Reuters was unable to verify if these sports surfaces had been built because both complexes are under construction and cordoned off from the public.
Dow and its partners declined to say how many of the shoes collected during the pilot phase had gone on to be recycled, nor would they provide those figures for the countrywide rollout. They did not explain what procedures were in place to ensure that donated shoes weren’t exported, diverted for resale, or pilfered from bins.
Illegal export of shoes
Reuters reported that the donated shoes that ended up in Indonesia have added to a flood of illegal second-hand clothing pouring into that developing country. According to a senior government official there, such cast-offs pose a public health risk and undercut the local textile industry while often adding more waste to already overflowing landfills.
These exports are also illegal, as Indonesia’s Ministry of Trade implemented the Prohibition of the Import of Used Clothing regulation in 2015 to prevent the import of used clothes and footwear over concerns about hygiene and the potential for spreading disease. This was also intended to protect the local textile industry.
The investigation raises questions about the effectiveness of corporate recycling initiatives, and highlights the need for greater transparency and accountability in efforts to tackle plastic pollution.
Additionally, the report exposes the challenges of creating a circular economy for plastic waste in the developing world, where waste infrastructure is often inadequate, and recycling facilities are limited.
Furthermore, the investigation raises questions about whether authorities such as SportSG independently verified whether the material used for the tracks was produced from recycled materials from the donated shoes or whether they simply relied on Dow’s word for it.
Read the full detailed investigative report from Reuters here.