Meet the Inventors: Recyclable shoes
The Problem: Right to repair
In an episode of the hit British comedy Only Fools and Horses a road sweeper named Trigger tells his fellow characters that he’s won a prize for having the best maintained broom. He claims to have been using the same one for over 20 years.
Just “17 new heads and 14 new handles,” he says, oblivious of the joke.
The concept is based on a classical thought experiment called Theseus’ Ship which was discussed by philosophers like Plato, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke. It asks if a ship belonging to the legendary King Theseus, which has had all of its parts replaced over time, is actually the same ship? The paradox has been given many treatments over the years like the Grandfather’s Axe, Trigger’s Broom or even a resoled pair of shoes.
But, this paradox has slightly slipped out of the public consciousness of late. Perhaps because the objects around us don’t appear to be as immediately repairable as Trigger’s broom. In the digital age, even a basic knowledge of computer coding or electrical engineering is required to fix a smartphone or remote control. Even those who possess the necessary skills still might not be able to repair their objects because companies don’t always sell official replacement parts.
Shoppers in the US are digging their heels in. The “right to repair” movement has gradually picked up momentum over the past few years,
Companies like John Deere and Apple have so far led the lobbying movement to block any such legislation. The best known of this type of story is of course Apple have historically been resistant this the basis that it “threatens consumer security and safety” and “stifles innovation.”
Regardless of whether or not this is true, the simple fact remains that fewer people than ever before are repairing their worn out prized possessions. For years professional ‘fixers’ like carpenters, smiths, glaziers, seamstresses, and of course cobblers, were an indispensable part of everyday life. But today many of them have all but disappeared from global high streets — and no where is this more apparent than the fashion industry.
Changing fashions have all but entirely replaced the modern way of buying and maintaining clothes or footwear. The modern trainer, for example, is almost never repaired. Who has ever taken a pair of trainers back for a repair when the sole wears out?
As a result, there are now reportedly over 20 billion pairs of shoes made every year. Approximately 300 million pairs of which are sent to landfill because they can’t be recycled.
According to a report published by Loughborough University, between 1990 and 2004, the global footwear production increased by a staggering 70 percent. This matches the wider trend of worldwide footwear production which seemingly doubles every 20 years, for example the 2.5 billion pairs made in 1950 which is by 2010 had reached 20 billion.
It isn’t surprising that many people in the fashion industry think that unless we fix our addiction to fast fashion it could quickly become one of our biggest recycling problems. Luckily one inventor thinks he has found a solution.
The Solution: Cobbled together seamlessly
In 2018, Evan Stuart was a student at the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT). The 23-year-old was investigating the problem of recyclable footwear, after having learning about the scale of the problem by accident.
His biggest concern was the manufacturing process that goes into making most shoes. As the inventor explains, “most casual footwear is designed to be bonded and glued together in manufacture but are not designed to be repaired.”
Evan decided to flip the problem on its head. Rather than worrying about how to help make footwear recyclable, why not first address why so much of it ends up in landfill in the first place.
His solution, Layer, is designed using biodegradable and recycled materials, and individual parts which can be replaced, allowing the user to repair and personalise their shoes helping reduce the waste generated by footwear.”
“Layer was designed as a possible solution to reduce footwear waste. It is a statement to the industry that sustainable footwear is a viable alternative.” he continues.
Instead of buying shoes which are permanently glued together, Layer shoes arrive in bits and can be sewn together by hand. They can also be bought as modular or constituent parts allowing for much greater self-customisation.
Comprising of four key components: The Uppers, Soles, Insoles and a Fastening Lace, every element of each shoe is replaceable. In time, as parts wear, tear and date, the user can replace individual parts with ease by ordering new ones online. The two major components (the upper and sole) are tied together using a simple lacing system.
Evan started his research by interviewing experts in textile recycling. Over the course of two months, he produced over 43 physical models to test the design and ensure that the attachment mechanism was actually viable. By the end of that process he had a working prototype which he felt was ready to submit to the 2018 James Dyson Award.
And the judges agreed with him. In October 2018 he was awarded €2,500 as the Irish national prizewinner. It was the first time a student from the DIT university had won the award since it was brought to Ireland 14 years ago.
As much as Evan was glad to be selected for this prize, Layer shoes were just beginning. As he explains, “there are virtually no alternative products which are tackling to issue of footwear waste. This leaves consumers with few desirable, fashionable or practical alternatives. Layer is a step in the right direction in terms of validating modular and sustainable footwear.”
“In comparison to the competition,” he continues “Layer is a radical rethinking of the casual shoe market. In a seasonal ‘fast fashion’ world where mass footwear and clothing waste is generated due to a minor cosmetic issue, a single component wear down or simply an out of style product, Layer aims to help reduce footwear waste by providing a repairable and customisable shoe solution.”
But Evan knows he still has a long way left to go before we can leave the footsteps of our footwear waste behind us. “Layer will need further development before it can be deemed market ready,” he explains. “In the coming months, I have made plans to further develop the product in areas such as usability, ease of assembly, durability and offering further styling options.
“Ideally, I will seek help from those with greater knowledge of soft goods and casual footwear to improve the product. Plans have been made to carry out further engineering tests to ensure the chosen materials are suitable. Final focus groups will be carried out to ensure the product meets customer expectations.”