SportSG and partners apologise for ‘lapse’ in shoe recycling project
National agency Sport Singapore (SportSG) and its partners in a shoe recycling project on Monday issued a joint apology for a “lapse” highlighted in a Reuters investigation, which revealed that old sneakers meant to be recycled for playgrounds and running tracks had instead ended up for sale in Indonesia.
These partners comprised sporting goods retailer Decathlon, chemical company Dow, Standard Chartered bank, surface solutions firm B.T. Sports, and local waste managment company Alba-WH.
In a joint media statement issued by SportSG, the partners said: “The project partners do not condone any unauthorised removal or export of shoes collected through this programme. We will also be taking further steps to tighten up the process chain based on our learning from this incident.
“The project partners sincerely apologise to the public for this lapse. We thank Reuters for flagging this matter to us so that we could take immediate steps to remedy the situation. We have learnt from this incident and hope that the public will continue to support this important and meaningful programme.”
Launched by Dow in partnership with SportSG in September 2020, the project aimed to upcycle the soles from 300,000 pairs of shoes contributed by the public into jogging tracks, fitness areas and playgrounds over the next three years. Contributors were able to drop off their shoes at over 30 collection points such as ActiveSG sport centres and stadiums, Decathlon and JD Sports stores.
Alba was responsible for collecting the shoes and B.T. Sports, which manages the grinding facility, converted the shoes into rubber granules and materials.
In its investigative report on Sunday, Reuters said its journalists had donated 11 pairs of shoes in different locations around Singapore and tracked them over a six-month period. According to its report, none of shoes made it to a Singapore recycling facility with several pairs ending up for sale in crowded bazaars in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta and Batam.
An industry insider who is familiar with such recycling projects, told The Straits Times that an organisation, depending on the scale of the project, will sort out the items using its own staff or hire an external party to do the sorting and packing.
The insider, who only spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “If the project’s aim was to redistribute the shoes then it is understood that the usable shoes are sorted out from the ones that can no longer be used again, especially those that are really worn out. But here that distinction was not made by SportSG or Dow. But this is probably what happened when the external party was used. They seemed to have picked out the good ones and then recycled the bad ones.”
“It seems like the exporter had free rein and thorough checks did not take place to ensure such a thing would not happen.”
The project partners said in the statement that they were first informed of “Reuter’s observations” in January 2023. An investigation led by Alba-WH commenced immediately and measures were also taken to “tighten up the process chain in the interim”.
Investigations were completed on Jan 31 and they showed “vulnerabilities in the process chain with Alba-WH’s subcontractor, which led directly to the collected shoes not being sent for recycling”.
In the statement, the partners explained that Alba-WH had subcontracted the bin collection to recycling firm Yok Impex. The bins were sorted at Yok Impex’s premises before being sent to Alba-WH’s warehouse for registering and weighing, after which the shoes were delivered to the B.T. Sports grinding facility.
“The findings had confirmed that the supply chain was compromised at Yok Impex’s premises where the aggregation of the shoe bins in parallel with Yok Impex’s sorting activities resulted in some shoes being extracted for resale instead of recycling,” said the statement.
“This was likely how the shoes tagged by Reuters – and possibly others – were extracted from the programme’s recycling bins at Yok Impex’s premises for reuse and exported to other countries. The investigations show that this error occurred only at Yok Impex’s facility, and no other.”
Alba-WH has since stopped collection bins from being sent to Yok Impex’s premises, and will not be renewing Yok Impex’s services, added the statement.
In October 2022, the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce (SICC) named the project and its partners the Most Sustainable Collaboration during its annual awards.
When asked if it would review the decision, SICC chief executive Victor Mills said in a statement: “The award was given for recycling old sports shoes into new materials for sports tracks. This has been done and will continue to be done. Our understanding is this regrettable incident is down to the practices of one shoe collection agent and its contract has been terminated by the party which contracted its services. This incident does not undermine the purpose of the collaboration nor its value.”
To date, 10,000kg of used shoes have been recycled into infrastructure such as Kallang Football Hub and a sport facility under construction in Jurong Town, said the partners. There are also plans to use the rubber granules for jogging tracks, fitness corners, and playgrounds around Singapore.
In December 2021, SportSG unveiled Singapore’s first fully permeable, in-situ tennis hard court at the Jurong West Tennis Centre – which was part of the recycling project – while it was also revealed that as of October 2021, Dow had collected 69,000 pairs of used sports and school shoes.
While the project partners have apologised for the lapse, the public may take more convincing.
Sreetharan Segar, who donated two pairs of Nike shoes at the Decathlon store in 2021, was shocked and disappointed after reading the Reuters report.
The 29-year-old, who works in the logistics industry, said: “If I had known that this is a possibility, I might as well have used my shoes till their last days. If such a thing is possible, it has to be made clear to people who are donating then I think many people would think twice about donating.
“You have to question if the people in charge of the project from SportSG did the due checks to ensure that the donated shoes go through the proper process.”
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