Sports, sex, and fashion shaped modern footwear design—and left shoes filled with plastics. There may be solutions in sight.
It was like nothing the young Edwards had ever seen. The designer, Nike’s Tinker Hatfield, had been an architect before he became a shoe designer, and he modeled his 1987 Air Max 1 after a famous building: Paris’s Pompidou Center, which wore its piping and structure on the outside of the building, rather than hidden inside.
Hatfield used the same principles for the shoe to highlight a new, special technology: a puffy inflatable bladder filled with air that sat under the wearer’s heel. In the never-ending quest to build the best, lightest, strongest shoe for the athletes who were pushing the limits of human performance, the bladder was Nike’s way to soften the pressure of a hard landing on a basketball court, and was also a way to save weight, because what could be lighter than air?
“As a design, it was so new and cool,” says Edwards. And, he says, it symbolized something meaningful in the history of shoe design: “This could only happen,” he says, “because of plastic.”
Worldwide, more than 24 billion pairs of shoes were made in 2018, with over two billion pairs sold in the U.S. alone. That’s more than seven pairs per person each year filling up American’s closets, piling up near doorways, and eventually making their way to the trash.
Most of those shoes are partly, or in many cases completely, fabricated from plastic and plastic-like materials, from the squishy soles to the pointy heels to the knit polyester uppers to the brittle eyelet holes. Because of their construction—usually, their many components are stitched and glued and molded together in complicated ways—they’re almost impossible to recycle. So your feet are only a short stopover in their long, long lifetimes, before they pile up in landfills and float down waterways, often living on like zombies for hundreds of years.