Saturday, April 22nd, 2023

Trainers, flea markets and greenwashing

Photograph of a pair of blue and yellow trainers waiting to go to recycling

A recycling scandal broke out in Singapore. The plan was to take unwanted sneakers and turn their soles into athletic tracks. It was an example of cooperation between the public and private sectors in tackling the climate crisis.

Only it didn’t work out that way.

Instead of being recycled, several trainers Reuters donated found their way into flea markets in Indonesia. They weren’t recycled as athletics tracks, but rather sold on to people who gave them a second life.

Cue accusations of greenwashing.

For their part, both Dow and the Singaporean government cried foul as neither had direct involvement in the recycling operation. They’d acted in good faith and been caught out by an unscrupulous contractor. Detractors point out they should have had more visibility and control over the contractor running the operation.

While it does raise serious questions about traceability and accountability, I think there’s a bigger question to ask:

If the sneakers were still usable, why was energy being put into transforming the soles into something else?

I’m not saying what happened was right. It exposes failures in management and weaknesses in how this type of scheme operates. However, when we’re setting up these programs we should look beyond the headline of “recycling shoes into running tracks” and think about what to do with perfectly serviceable donations. Not everyone will wait until something reaches the end of its life before putting it in the recycling bin.

After all, isn’t “reuse” one of our sustainability goals?

My name is Ross Hori

I'm a freelance writer, designer and photographer. By day I create articles, features and reports. At night I take photos and write fiction. Find out more.