How Dow’s shoe recycling pledge veered off track

STORY: At a rundown market in Indonesia, Reuters correspondent Joe Brock is following the bleeping sound of a tracking device.

It takes him to a mound of second-hand shoes.

There they are – the blue Nike running shoes that he fitted with a tracker months before so that he could follow their journey.

This market is not where they’re supposed to end up.

They were supposed to be recycled into playgrounds and jogging tracks, as promised by the Singapore government and U.S. petrochemicals giant Dow.

Let’s rewind several months to unpack where this promise went wrong.

Joe Brock, Reuters Special Correspondent: “What we’re doing today is we’re finding out what happens to your recycling. Dow, a big petrochemicals company, U.S. firm, has teamed up with the Singapore government, in a scheme to recycle pairs of shoes. They say they’re going to take any shoe, which has a rubber sole, grind it down, and turn it into running tracks, and playgrounds. So we want to see if that’s what they’re really doing.”

“So what I’m going to do is that I’m going cut a cavity hole in the sole of each pair of shoes, one of the shoes of each pair, place the tracker in there. We’re going to then cover it up.”

“I’m going to take this tracker and I’m going to sync it up with my phone. There it goes. It’s coming up there. And I’m just going to call this ‘Shoe 1.’ And now once we put that in the shoe, we drop it off, and we’ll be able to see wherever it goes in the world.”

“So Dow and Sport Singapore have set up dozens of locations around the country where you can drop off your shoes. We’re going to go to ten different spots and drop off our shoes and we’ll see where they go.”

Dow is a major producer of chemicals used to make plastics and other synthetic materials, some of which end up in sneakers.

In the past it has launched recycling efforts that have fallen short of their stated aims.

The company says it’s creating valuable products from plastic waste.

Reuters wanted to follow a donated shoe from start to finish to see if it did, in fact, end up in new athletic surfaces in Singapore, or at least made it as far as a local recycling facility for shredding.

Within weeks it was clear to see they had not.

In fact, some had traveled much further than Singapore, to the point that Joe had to travel by air and sea to find them.

“Okay, I followed the tracker as far as this market in Jakarta. And I can see that the signal is coming from inside so I’m going to go in and see if I can find those shoes.”

“I’ve just bought these shoes from a shop here in this market in Jakarta for 300,000 rupiahs, which is about US$20. Now let’s go somewhere quieter and make sure this is the same pair that we dropped off in Singapore.”

“And there we are.”

Over a 6-month period, Reuters put trackers into and donated altogether 11 pairs of footwear.

None of them made it to a Singapore recycling facility.

Four pairs ended up in locations in Indonesia that were too remote for Reuters to track down in person.

In three others the trackers stopped sending a signal after they reached Indonesia.

But before they ended up in far flung places, nearly all of them came here first:

A second-hand goods exporter in Singapore called Yok Impex.

“Now Yok Impex is not a recycler, they are a textile and shoe trader. They buy clothes and shoes from charities and export them to other developing countries like Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia. The question is, why shoes that were said to be recycled, would be sent to a commercial, for-profit trading company.”

Here, Reuters spotted wheelie bins from Dow’s shoe program stacked up in a backyard.

We spoke to Yok Impex’s Logistics co-ordinator Tony Tan.

He said his firm had been hired to retrieve shoes from the bins by a local waste management company involved in the recycling program.

Yok Impex then delivers those shoes to the waste company, Tan said.

When Reuters told Tan it had tracked donated shoes leaving his facility for Indonesia, he said employees may have sent them there in error.

“Sometimes the workers mix it up. I’m not sure because we all collect from some other suppliers. It’s a mistake. I think, some mistake.”

Joe Brock: “These shoes were supposed to be ground down to replace rubber in traditional jogging tracks like the one behind me in central Singapore. Instead, what we found was that they were exported to Indonesia for resale. We asked Dow, Sports Singapore, and their partners for interviews. They all declined. When presented with Reuters findings, Dow said they had opened an investigation. That probe has now been completed, and Dow sent us the following statement: ‘Going forward, Yok Impex has been removed from the project. The project partners do not condone any unauthorized removal or export of shoes collected through this program, and remain committed to safeguarding the integrity of the collection and recycle process.’”

The donated shoes that ended up in Indonesia have also added to a flood of illegal second-hand clothing pouring into that developing country, according to a senior government official there.

Dow had steadfastly defended its green initiatives as being good for the planet.

And the company’s efforts in Singapore are already winning accolades.

In October 2022, Dow and other partners in the Singapore shoe recycling program stepped onto the stage of an elegant ballroom, hosted by the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce.

There they were presented with the Most Sustainable Collaboration award.

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