In the age of increasing environmental awareness and the urgency of a circular economy, the footwear industry in particularly faces major challenges in terms of waste disposal and management. Every year, billions of shoes are produced worldwide that end up as waste at the end of their life cycle. However, this waste is difficult and costly to dispose of, as many different materials are used in the production of shoes. As a result, the recycling of footwear requires specialized techniques and processes to effectively separate the different materials so that they can be reused.
As part of the research project "ReProcessShoe: Recycling processes and disassembly of general footwear components, including electronic modules, with ways to reuse components and materials based on modular construction", which started in January 2023, our team from the Technology Department, together with Ł-ITEE (Łukasiewicz Research Network - Institute for Sustainable Technologies) and the OIBS (National Chamber of Leather Industry), is developing technological guidelines that enable the recycling of post-consumer footwear components. The project aims to revolutionize the recycling process of shoe components by developing innovative methods of shoe disassembly and separation. Modular shoe design and construction-adapted production will enable the disassembly and recycling of specific shoe components. The research focuses on the reuse and recycling of the residual fractions obtained using modern processes such as pyrolysis and hydrolysis. The main objective is to identify the process with the greatest ecological reuse potential and thus take a significant step towards more sustainable footwear production.
The task of the PFI is the further development and optimization of a robot system that separates the shoe sole from the upper material, metal and electronic elements. A so-called "fractionation system". The materials obtained and pre-sorted by the fractionation system can in turn be recycled and ground to produce a granulate that can be used in numerous industrial processes. For example, leather granulate can be used in the manufacture of sports accessories or as a filler in the construction of road surfaces. The PFI team is also researching the definition of a modular shoe structure and is responsible for the physical and chemical analysis of the new materials.
Although the recycling of shoes is technically possible, it remains a challenge due to the variety of materials and constructions used. However, advances in technology and research will help to improve recycling processes and make the footwear industry more sustainable. The ReProcessShoe project could be a significant step in the right direction.
Find out more about the project here.