Could sneakers wipe out plastic pollution in our oceans?

A new collaboration between Adidas and the nonprofit Parley for the Oceans is offering the world’s first high-performance footwear made from plastic recovered from the ocean, offering a practical solution to a worsening global problem.

Parley for the Oceans has been confronting threats against the world’s oceans since it was founded in 2013. Among other threats such as over-fishing, climate change, and pollution, the nonprofit has worked to reclaim plastics from the Indian Ocean. The recent collaboration with the German company uses those plastics to produce performance fabrics for Adidas. The project started in November by producing soccer jerseys for professional European soccer clubs Real Madrid and Bayern Munich – the two teams faced off in their environmentally friendly jerseys on November 5th.

The project won’t stop there. Later this month, Adidas will begin offering the UltraBoost Uncaged Adidas x Parley, made from 95 percent plastics recovered from the ocean. Production will start with 7,000 pairs, with plans to expand production in 2017.

The innovation is more than just a trendy selling point. Plastic pollution in oceans is a scourge on wildlife and on the environment itself. Scientists have estimated that there are at least 5 trillion pieces of microplastics floating in the world’s oceans, weighing as much as a quarter of a million tons. According to a different study published in Science magazine, as many as 28 billion pounds of plastic entered the ocean in 2010 alone. Most originates from sources on land, ending up in the oceans due to poor waste management. Since plastic is not biodegradable, it breaks into smaller pieces over time creating even more problems. Due to its sheer abundance in the world’s oceans, seabirds often mistake it for food, leading to malnutrition, intestinal blockage, and even gradual poisoning. And every year, over 100,000 marine animals die from it.

So far, the plastic problem has proven difficult to solve, even as it reaches catastrophic proportions. NGOs have offered a number of possible solutions, and petitioned governmental bodies to adopt measures to limit single use plastic products such as bags and straws, in an effort to mitigate plastic pollution. Extra fees for plastic bags have not stopped them from overwhelming waste management systems in parts of the world. Calls to reuse plastics intended for disposability have also failed to stem the tide.

The issue of marine plastic pollution is gaining attention around the globe, as it becomes harder to ignore and threatens marine ecosystems. Recently, 800 young protesters in Hong Kong created living artwork to protest ocean pollution, forming an image of “Trashzilla” on a beach when viewed from above. Trashzilla is a decades old symbol of anti-litter campaigns, which fell out of use over the years.

To the north, Japan’s coastline has become littered with plastic pollution from South Korea. A recent documentary called Washed Ashore made by the Pacific Rim Project sought to raise awareness of this problem by focusing on the sandy beaches of the quaint Japanese city of Kyotango on the country’s northern coast. It highlighted that thousands of plastic bottles, lighters, fishing gear, and other garbage, including appliances and even hazardous materials, which have floated from South Korea, are routinely found along the region’s shores and beaches.

But the problem is global in scale. International observers are concerned that Africa is on its way to becoming as badly polluted as Southeast Asia, in the wake of rapid development that has outpaced the ability of waste management to keep up. South Africa’s beaches contain as many as 400 plastic items per meter, according to data from industry groups there. Plastic accounts for as much as 90 percent of beach litter in South Africa. The pollution extends to bodies of freshwater inland, such as the Juksei river in Johannesburg.

As the problem has continued to worsen, international efforts have stalled, or failed to provide practical solutions for the developing world. In September, the United States hosted the 2016 “Our Ocean” conference in Washington DC, where international participants agreed to establish marine protection areas encompassing over 1.5 million square miles of ocean. The move follows Obama’s expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii, which made it the largest marine protection area in the world, encompassing 582,578 square miles of ocean and land.

However, while countries like the US have the means to police such protected areas, and to enforce laws against overfishing and other threats to the marine environment, the developing world has much more limited resources. There, governments often struggle just to stay on top of illegal fishing and piracy. Policing a protected area is sometimes unrealistic. When the US and Europe offer funding for such projects, it often goes towards propping up and arming authoritarians regimes to police the coastline, instead of building sustainable long-term economies. Such short-term solutions are not enough.

At the COP22 Climate Conference in Morocco, officials stressed the need to modernize efforts to manage marine resources. They recommended enhancing the ability of institutions to enforce the rule of law at sea, reducing human pressures on the oceans from economic activity, and investing more in science to learn more about the oceans.

With Donald Trump’s election in the United States, and in light of failures of government and international bodies to address these problems, efforts such as the Adidas project seem increasingly essential to tackling global pollution. Private sector efforts can offer a mixture of technology and science, paired with the practicality that comes with a strong profit incentive. Hopefully, these efforts will catch on where others have not.

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