Adidas makes shoes from ocean plastic.
Photo: Getty

I don’t own many sneakers, but I do own a pair of white Adidas. Y’know, the classic Superstars. Like most sneaker companies, Adidas uses a lot of virgin plastic to make these shoes—ultimately contributing to the problem of marine plastic pollution when wearers like me discard them.

That’s why Adidas pledged Monday to use only recycled plastics by 2024. Its offices, retail stores, warehouses, and distribution centers will begin their end of virgin plastic this year, reports the Financial Times. In 2019, the spring and summer 2019 line of clothes will feature 41 percent recycled polyester.

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These moves are a step in the right direction, and an indicator of what more companies should be doing. Ultimately, though, tackling the global plastic crisis will require reducing consumption.

Adidas’ announcement isn’t a complete surprise. The company’s site already notes its attempt to use recycled materials, including recycled polyester and nylon. Plus, last year Adidas partnered last year with Parley, an advocacy organization working on plastics pollution, to create shoes made with recycled ocean plastic and illegal deep sea fishing nets. That partnership continues today with the line featuring a range of shoes, hoodies, tees, and pants.

Adidas’ actions fall in line with a broader movement across corporate America to reduce plastic usage, and its announcement this week comes on the heels of Starbucks pledging to ban all single-use plastic straws by 2020.

The salient question for Adidas is, how much better are recycled plastics than so-called virgin plastic? Enough that they should be used more, according to Shardul Agrawala, a senior economist with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Environment and Economy Integration Division.

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Recycled plastics, at a bare minimum, keep plastics from immediately going into landfills or oceans when they’re used in clothing or shoes. Creating new plastics also takes energy, which in our world means carbon emissions. Today, plastics account for 1 to 3 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Removing that from the equation helps combat climate change, even if just by a bit.

“It takes a lot of energy to manufacture virgin plastics, and if you end up using recycled plastics, then you are reducing that part of the environmental impact upstream as well, in addition to reduced generation of plastic waste downstream,” Agrawala told Earther.

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The OECD published a report in May on the need to improve the market for recycled plastics if we truly want to fix our plastics problem. The report suggests policy changes that could make recycled plastics more cost-competitive, including a tax on the manufacture of new plastics.

But as Adidas has shown, incentive can also come from the private sector. When a major company decides it’s ditching primary plastics completely, the producers of recycled plastics see this a signal that they’re becoming more competitive, which incentivizes them to produce more recycled plastics.

“The more competitive the secondary [recycled] plastics production becomes, the more potential there is to scale up the secondary plastics production, the more chance we have to divert these plastics that end up in landfills and oceans and so on,” Agrawala said.

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So, shout out to Adidas. Converting to recycled plastics-only is a solid first step toward combatting plastic pollution. But it shouldn’t be the last. Reducing consumption overall is a whole other beast, Agrawala explained. Retailers should treat durability as a priority, so that products last longer.

“The technological know how to make longer-lasting products already exists, but often you have a business model that is dependent on sales of new goods, and that’s often the way the companies are valued,” he went on. “So there’s always incentive to sell more and more stuff, so, in a way, we are still stuck in this cycle.”

Breaking this cycle will take more than shoes made from recycled plastic.

We’ve reached out to Adidas for comment, and we’ll update this post when we hear back.

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