What an eco-wonderful world. First came fleece sweaters made from pulverized plastic bottles. Now, in addition to running in your Nikes, you can run on them.
In 1993 the athletic shoe giant unveiled its Reuse-A-Shoe program, through which more than two million pairs of defective and worn-out sneakers have been collected, run through the figurative meat grinder and brought back to life as equestrian surfaces, basketball courts, running tracks and playgrounds. "Just Re-Do It," so to speak.
" Nike is not necessarily in the shoe-granulation business, but we want to show that it's possible to do this," says Reuse-A-Shoe marketing manager Bill Malloch. He says the company saves about $100,000 on disposal costs.
But shoe recycling is no easy task. As Malloch notes, "It's not like a can of pop, where you can just melt the can down and make a new one." Athletic shoes contain everything from cotton and polyester to cardboard and leather, not to mention ethyl vinyl acetate and polyurethane.
Americans bought some 360 million pairs of athletic shoes last year. Malloch dreams of refining the recycling process to the point where each shoe ingredient is recovered—which would mean threadbare running shoes could be born again as virgin ones. But at the moment Nike's recycling center in Wilsonville, Ore., has advanced only to the Bronze Age of Reuse-A-Shoe technology.
Throwaway Nikes are shredded into three-eighths-inch bits, then passed through an air separator that spits out two piles of regurgitant: minced rubber and lightweight fabric fluff. The latter is given away, destined to wind up as carpet underlay. Nike, in conjunction with Dodge-Regupol Inc. of Lancaster, Pa., which specializes in synthetic sports flooring, uses the ground-up rubber parts to make athletic surfaces.
Much of Nike's granulated-rubber resources go toward refurbishing inner-city facilities. Thus far, Nike has picked up the tab for surfacing 12 indoor and outdoor basketball courts and two running tracks in the U.S. and four outdoor basketball courts in Europe. In addition, last month 60 decaying school playgrounds in Oakland were covered with protective Reuse-A-Shoe rubber matting.
Nike has made many friends in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, where last year the firm sprang for a bright blue all-purpose basketball court at a local Boys & Girls Club. "I tell you, it's really heightened the name of Nike in the community," says Steven Melton, the Brooklyn division director for the Madison Square Boys & Girls Club. "I'm an old guy, so I'm used to wearing Converse. But, I'm sorry: Converse didn't give a floor to my kids. So I'm a Nike man straight through."
It was another " Nike man" from Brooklyn who midwifed that project. In 1994, film director Spike Lee admired a Nike court he saw in Richmond, Calif., and said he wished there were one in his neighborhood. Quicker than a slam dunk, somebody at Nike contacted Melton and offered a freebie. He now has a court made out of some 4,000 shoes, and there's nary a dead spot.
While the Nike logo is visible on all Reuse-A-Shoe products, Reuse-A-Shoe rubber isn't. The recycled shoes generally make up about 30% of the spongy base that's laid down before a topcoat is applied. A whopping 75,000 pairs of Nikes went into Reuse-A-Shoe's most ambitious undertaking to date: an IAAF-caliber track and field complex for Atlanta's Quicksilver Track Club. "We're talking about a project that's worth $800,000 or a million dollars," says Tony Paige, the local construction manager. "Technically, the track is as good as the Olympic one," says Malloch. "Except it's got Nike shoes in it, which is even better."