From Air to Zoom to React, the advent of a new Nike cushioning tech is typically a headline-worthy moment. At the end of July, Nike introduced Joyride, a cushioning technology comprising many encapsulated beads made from TPE, a copolymer of plastic and rubber.
While Nike touted Joyride as an innovative new footbed that adjusts to your sole for greater comfort, reactions about the brand's use of plastic abounded on social media and from publishers such as Gizmodo, which asked pointedly, "Did Nike Not Get the Memo on Plastic Beads?"
The world is already littered with plastic. Its presence is poisoning our ecosystems, particularly the oceans, where most of the beads in face scrubs wind up, adding an additional crisis on top of the insane amount of pollutants and greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere on a daily basis. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest of five such accumulations in the world's oceans, is estimated to cover an area three times the size of France. By 2050, there could be more plastic in our oceans than fish.
So in a time when the world should be cutting back on the production of unnecessary plastics, isn’t Nike’s unveiling of a shoe featuring thousands of mini plastic balls something of a misstep in the fight for sustainability? Well, yes and no.
The mass production of anything tends to be an unnecessary luxury. Thirty-four million pairs of running shoes are sold around the world every day and the last thing we need is more, but it's hard to bring everything to a screeching halt when the fashion industry is a huge moneymaker and employer worth some $3 trillion.
In theory, the plastic in Nike's sleek new silhouette isn't any more of a danger to the environment than the plastic used in an Air Max, even if it then becomes a question of quantity used. One thing Nike is quick to point out is that Joyride beads, as small as they are, aren't to be confused with the microplastics increasingly found when we cut open the bodies of marine animals.
"[Microplastics] are defined by a certain length, size, or certain attributes around making a microplastic," says Vanessa Garcia-Brito, Nike global VP of communications. "The beads themselves [don't meet those specifications], so they would not fall within that category."
While Nike says Joyride beads don't fit the definition of a microplastic — less than 5 millimeters in length — the brand also wants to quell concerns that the beads could leak and eventually degrade into microplastics. The TPE beads are encased in a pod made of soft-grade TPU, a material that Nike global senior footwear product director Kylee Barton calls "strong and resilient, adding another layer of protection and containment when paired with the foam carrier and rubber outsole."
Garcia-Brito also insists that the beads are 100 percent recyclable. "They can be turned into something else," she says. "They can be transformed into, reworked into, another product."
In a world stuck in a cycle of mass production that's near-impossible to switch off overnight, producing ethically and moving toward a circular economy is critically important. Nike is making efforts on this front through programs such as Reuse-A-Shoe, Flyleather, and Nike Grind. That being said, we should always question how much we're buying and whether having another pair of sneakers in our closet is really all that necessary.
While Nike's reassurances do show a degree of due diligence, the new tech is a reminder that in the corporate world, reconciling the insatiable need for profit and growth with sustainable practices is the biggest obstacle to overcome. One thing is for sure: a sole full of Air is a whole lot more sustainable than one full of plastic.
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