September 22, 2023

At a rundown market on the Indonesian island of Batam, a small location tracker was beeping from the again of a crumbling second-hand shoe retailer. A Reuters reporter adopted the high-pitched ping to a mound of outdated sneakers and started digging by means of the pile.

There they had been: a pair of blue Nike trainers with a monitoring machine hidden in one of many soles.

These acquainted sneakers had travelled by land, then sea and crossed a global border to finish up on this heap. They weren’t presupposed to be right here.

5 months earlier, in July 2022, Reuters had given the sneakers to a recycling program spearheaded by the Singapore authorities and U.S. petrochemicals big Dow Inc. In media releases and a promotional video posted on-line, that effort promised to reap the rubberized soles and midsoles of donated sneakers, then grind down the spongy materials to be used in constructing new playgrounds and working tracks in Singapore.

Dow, a significant producer of chemical substances used to make plastics and different artificial supplies, previously has launched recycling efforts which have fallen wanting their acknowledged goals. Reuters wished to comply with a donated shoe from begin to end to see if it did, in reality, find yourself in new athletic surfaces in Singapore, or at the very least made it so far as a neighborhood recycling facility for shredding.

To that finish, the information group minimize a shallow cavity into the inside sole of one of many blue Nikes, positioned a Bluetooth tracker inside, then hid the machine by protecting it with the insole. The tracker was synched to a smartphone app that confirmed the place the shoe moved in actual time.

Inside weeks, the blue Nikes had left the affluent city-state and had been transferring south by sea throughout the slender Singapore Strait to Batam island, the app confirmed. Reuters determined to place trackers in an extra 10 pairs of donated sneakers to see if wayward pair No. 1 had been a fluke.

It wasn’t.

Not one of the 11 pairs of footwear donated by Reuters had been changed into train paths or children’ parks in Singapore.

As an alternative, practically all of the tagged sneakers ended up within the palms of Yok Impex Pte Ltd, a Singaporean second-hand items exporter, in response to the trackers and that exporter’s logistics supervisor. The supervisor mentioned his agency had been employed by a waste administration firm concerned within the recycling program to retrieve sneakers from the donation bins for supply to that firm’s native warehouse.

However that’s not what occurred to the sneakers donated by Reuters. Ten pairs moved first from the donation bins to the exporter’s facility, then on to neighbouring Indonesia, in some instances travelling tons of of miles to totally different corners of the huge archipelago, the placement trackers confirmed.

Utilizing the smartphone app to hint the motion of every shoe, Reuters journalists later travelled by air, land and sea to get better three pairs – together with the blue Nikes – from crowded bazaars in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, and in Batam, which lies 12 miles (19.3 kilometres) south of Singapore. 4 pairs ended up in places in Indonesia that had been too distant for Reuters to trace down in particular person. In three different instances the trackers stopped sending a sign after they reached Indonesia.

The eleventh pair stays in Singapore, however their destiny isn’t what Dow and Sport Singapore had promised in media releases and a promotional video posted on-line. These sneakers – a pair of males’s white Reeboks – ended up in a public housing mission a few mile (1.6 kilometres) from a neighborhood sports activities centre the place Reuters had dropped them right into a donation bin on Sept. 8. Its tracker nonetheless blinks from that location, in response to the app, a sign that they could have been taken from the donation bin. Reuters visited the housing mission however wasn’t capable of finding the precise location of the sneakers.

Introduced with Reuters’ findings early this 12 months, Dow mentioned on Jan. 18 that it had opened an investigation together with Sport Singapore, a state company, and different sponsors of this system: French-owned sporting items retailer Decathlon S.A.; banking big Customary Chartered plc; ALBA W&H Good Metropolis Pte. Ltd (Alba-WH), a neighborhood waste administration agency; and B.T. Sports activities Pte Ltd, a Singaporean agency answerable for shredding the donated footwear at a neighborhood facility.

On Feb. 22, Dow mentioned in an emailed assertion to Reuters that the investigation had concluded and, because of this, Yok Impex could be faraway from the mission, efficient March 1. It didn’t clarify why a used-clothing exporter had been concerned in retrieving footwear from the donation bins, however mentioned this system’s companions had been now looking for one other firm to gather the sneakers.

“The mission companions don’t condone any unauthorized elimination or export of sneakers collected by means of this program and stay dedicated to safeguarding the integrity of the gathering and recycle course of,” mentioned the assertion, which Dow issued on behalf of all of the sponsors.

Reuters reporters visited the premises of Yok Impex on Feb. 23 to ask about whether or not it had been faraway from the mission. The dealer’s accountant, June Peh, informed Reuters the agency could be leaving this system when its one-year contract involves an finish, with out giving a cause for its exit or an actual date.

In January, Decathlon despatched Reuters a press release saying it had not licensed the export of any sneakers from this system. Customary Chartered and B.T. Sports activities didn’t reply to requests for remark. Sport Singapore and Alba-WH referred inquiries to Dow. Alba-WH is a partnership between ALBA Group, a significant German waste administration firm, and Wah & Hua Pte Ltd, a Singaporean waste disposal agency. The 2 corporations didn’t reply to emailed requests for remark.

Reuters tracked the 11 pairs of sneakers over a six-month interval. All of the footwear was positioned in several donation barrels round Singapore between July 14 and Sept. 9 of final 12 months. Whereas the pattern was small, the truth that none of those sneakers made it to a Singapore recycling facility underscores weaknesses within the system.

The findings come as environmental teams say chemical corporations like Dow are making exaggerated or false claims about recycling with a purpose to burnish their inexperienced credentials, and to undermine proposed rules to rein within the hovering manufacturing of plastics utilized in single-use packaging and quick style.

The donated sneakers that ended up in Indonesia have added to a flood of unlawful second-hand clothes pouring into that creating nation, in response to a senior authorities official there, who mentioned such cast-offs pose a public well being danger, undercut its native textile business and infrequently pile extra waste into its already bulging landfills.

Dow informed Reuters the Singapore shoe mission was making progress. A sports activities facility below building in Jurong, a district in western Singapore, will use recycled shoe materials in its surfaces, Dow mentioned in its January assertion. The corporate additionally pointed to Kallang Soccer Hub, a brand new soccer complicated whose working monitor purportedly was the primary in Singapore to be comprised of recycled shoe granules. Dow mentioned these builds will use the ten,000 kilograms (22,000 kilos) of recycled shoe materials which were produced by means of the Singapore recycling mission up to now.

Reuters was unable to confirm if these sports activities surfaces had been constructed as a result of each complexes are below building and cordoned off from the general public.

A pilot mission in 2019 collected 21,000 pairs of sneakers, Paul Fong, Dow’s Singapore supervisor, mentioned in a promotional video posted on social media in July 2021 when the nationwide program was launched. One other pilot mission in 2020 collected 75,000 pairs of sneakers, Fong mentioned in that video. Fong didn’t reply to emailed questions.

Dow and its companions declined to say how most of the sneakers collected throughout the pilot section had gone on to be recycled, nor would they supply these figures for the countrywide rollout. They didn’t clarify what procedures had been in place to make sure that donated sneakers weren’t exported, diverted for resale or pilfered from bins.

Hidden Trackers

Dow manufactures silicone rubber and plastic utilized in soles and midsoles of sports activities sneakers. The multinational and Sport Singapore mentioned of their 2021 media releases that their “first of its variety” program would divert 170,000 pairs of sneakers yearly from the landfill. This system companions didn’t reply to questions on what would occur to those sneakers or what number of could be recycled to make sports activities surfaces.

Below the slogan “Others see an outdated shoe. We see the long run,” they referred to as on the general public to donate used sneakers with rubberized soles to assist ease the burden on Singapore’s incinerators and its solely landfill.

Dozens of wheelie bins for donations had been positioned throughout the city-state of 5.6 million individuals. These containers turned up in parks, neighborhood centres, colleges and shops of retail sponsor Decathlon. Singapore residents started depositing hundreds of used sneakers, flip-flops and college sneakers. Within the promotional video, members of the general public, together with college youngsters, talked enthusiastically about donating.

“I contributed 15 pairs of sneakers,” scholar Zhang Youjia mentioned within the video, which was produced by Dow.

The ten pairs donated by Reuters that had been exported moved initially from the recycling drop-off bins to the warehouse of Yok Impex, located in west Singapore near the island’s greatest dockyard.

From there, the sneakers travelled by sea to Batam, an entry level for items getting into Indonesia, which has a inhabitants of greater than 270 million individuals, the fourth-largest on the earth.

Guided by the smartphone app, Reuters in December adopted two of the trackers to the identical location in Batam: Pertokoan Cipta Prima, a sprawling flea market catering to low-income buyers. There, dozens of distributors understanding of rows of crumbling concrete retailers patched with tarpaulin and steel sheets had been promoting the whole lot from T-shirts and fridges to plastic toys.

The information company noticed half a dozen shops promoting used sneakers, all clustered in the identical space. At three of them, Reuters noticed footwear stuffed into sacks emblazoned with the phrases “Yok Impex,” together with the Singapore firm’s dolphin emblem.

The primary pair to be tracked down had been the blue Nike trainers. The app led to a dark, cluttered shoe retailer. However the sneakers weren’t on show. Utilizing a operate on the app to make the tracker begin beeping, a reporter adopted the sound to the again of the store, lastly finding these Nikes on the backside of a mound of free footwear. It had been 5 months since Reuters had deposited them right into a donation barrel at a gleaming Decathlon retailer in Singapore. Reuters purchased them again for 180,000 rupiah ($12).

The second tracker – tucked right into a pair of ladies’s black Nikes – was positioned at a close-by store. Reuters had dropped these sneakers right into a Dow recycling bin at a Singapore neighborhood centre in September, three months earlier. They price 120,000 rupiah ($8) to repurchase.

Different sneakers went on a far longer voyage.

Unbelievable Journey

A pair of pink and orange New Steadiness sneakers – donated by Reuters in Singapore on Sept. 7 – landed in the identical Batam market every week later, the monitoring app confirmed. By early October, that they had moved to a close-by island referred to as Bintan, earlier than making a 400-mile journey to Medan, a metropolis of two.4 million individuals in northern Sumatra. On Oct. 10, the sneakers travelled one other 800 miles to Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, in response to the app.

Indonesia’s second-hand clothes business is made up of a fancy community of merchants, they usually usually change items throughout totally different areas, two garment retailers informed Reuters.

Three weeks later, on Nov. 1, two Reuters reporters searched a frenzied mall in Jakarta in search of the sneakers, ultimately discovering them in a cramped store on the third flooring. The sneakers, freshly cleaned and fitted with a brand new pair of laces, had crisscrossed Indonesia on a marathon eight-week journey. They price Reuters 300,000 rupiah ($20) to purchase again.

To study extra about Yok Impex’s position within the motion of those sneakers, Reuters on Jan. 6, 2023, paid an unannounced go to to that used-clothing exporter, and was invited onto the premises. There reporters noticed wheelie bins from Dow’s shoe program stacked up in a yard. Inside, girls sorted by means of tables piled excessive with outdated sneakers, rigorously putting them into piles after which transferring them into sacks like those seen on the Batam flea market.

Yok Impex’s logistics supervisor, Tony Tan, informed Reuters that waste handler Alba-WH was paying his firm to gather the sneakers from the donation bins round Singapore after which ship the sneakers again to Alba-WH.

Tan mentioned Yok Impex didn’t export sneakers it collected for this system. When knowledgeable that Reuters had discovered sneakers it had donated being resold in Batam by retailers who had Yok Impex sacks of their retailers, Tan mentioned it was potential that sneakers from this system bought positioned in error with different footwear it exports to Indonesia.

“Generally the employees combine it up. I’m undecided as a result of all of us acquire from another suppliers,” Tan mentioned. “It’s a mistake. I feel, some mistake.” Tan didn’t elaborate.

Banned Commerce

In 2015, Indonesia’s Ministry of Commerce launched the Prohibition of the Import of Used Clothes regulation. The measure banned the import of used garments and footwear over considerations about hygiene and the potential of these things to unfold illness, in addition to the necessity to shield the native textile business.

Veri Anggrijono, Director Normal of Shopper Safety and Commerce Management on the commerce ministry, informed Reuters that the unlawful second-hand clothes import market in Indonesia is price hundreds of thousands of {dollars} a 12 months.

“It’s a well-organized exercise as a result of once we raid them in a single place, then it should go quiet, then proceed once more,” Anggrijono informed Reuters in an interview at his workplace in Jakarta. He mentioned the importer is the social gathering liable below the regulation, not the exporter or market vendor.

Anggrijono mentioned importers may be charged below commerce and shopper safety legal guidelines, which carry penalties that may embody imprisonment and fines. However he mentioned up to now the one motion the commerce ministry has taken is to revoke import licenses, in addition to seizing and destroying used clothes.

A torrent of low-cost, unregulated second-hand clothes flowing into Indonesia additionally provides to the nation’s mounting rubbish drawback, mentioned Dharmesh Shah, a coverage advisor to the International Alliance for Incinerator Options, a nonprofit engaged on waste air pollution. He mentioned a lot of that merchandise is in such poor situation that distributors can’t resell it.

“They kind by means of it and a really small proportion is definitely reusable,” Shah informed Reuters. “It simply will get burned in open dumps or goes into rivers or in landfills.”

Two market distributors in Batam, who requested to not be named, informed Reuters they purchase sacks of sneakers of differing grades from used-clothing merchants akin to Yok Impex, however don’t know precisely what they’re getting till they open them up. They mentioned it’s not unusual to throw out half the sneakers they obtain as a result of the footwear isn’t ok to promote.

Recycling Flops

This isn’t the primary novel recycling scheme launched by Dow that hasn’t lived as much as its billing.

In 2021, a Reuters investigation discovered {that a} program in Idaho that the corporate mentioned was utilizing breakthrough expertise to show plastic waste into clear gasoline was really burning plastic trash to gasoline a cement plant.

On the time, a Dow spokesperson mentioned the Boise program was serving to to “rework waste into precious merchandise.”

The identical 12 months, Reuters discovered {that a} Dow-backed mission in India, which was supposed to gather plastic trash from the Ganges river and use high-tech equipment to remodel the waste into clear gasoline, had been shut down following common tools malfunctions.

The India mission was run by The Alliance To Finish Plastic Waste (AEPW), a nonprofit group arrange by large oil and chemical corporations. On the time, a spokesperson for the AEPW confirmed that the mission had ended, due partially to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Promoting the promise of recent recycling applied sciences, whether or not to show sneakers into playgrounds or plastic luggage into clear gasoline, is an try to lull the general public right into a false sense of safety in regards to the environmental affect of elevated consumerism, environmental teams like Greenpeace and Break Free From Plastic say.

Dow declined additional touch upon these claims or its monitor file on recycling.

Jan Dell, founding father of The Final Seashore Cleanup, a U.S. nonprofit centered on decreasing plastic air pollution, mentioned massive petrochemical corporations ought to need to report on the outcomes of their sustainability tasks with the identical transparency because the profit-making elements of the enterprise.

“Dow promised to select up these sneakers and grind them into supplies and make them into playgrounds, and as an alternative they’re being discovered throughout one other nation. They actually can’t be believed,” mentioned Dell, after being given particulars of Reuters’ findings.

Guarantees about new recycling applied sciences additionally make good enterprise sense for petrochemical corporations, in response to Dell, who mentioned throw-away shopper tradition is nice for his or her income. Persons are extra prone to buy extra of a product when they’re informed it may be recycled into one thing helpful, in response to a 2013 research within the Journal of Shopper Psychology.

In its Jan. 18 assertion, Dow mentioned the shoe recycling companions are “energized by the frequent imaginative and prescient of sport championing a greener and extra sustainable Singapore.” Dow didn’t touch upon the Journal of Shopper Psychology research.

In July of final 12 months, Dow launched an analogous shoe recycling program in Malaysia, which has a inhabitants of 33 million individuals and neighbours Singapore to the north. In selling that mission, Dow’s Fong pointed to the Singapore shoe program because the blueprint for fulfillment. For its Malaysian initiative, Dow partnered with a neighborhood nonprofit and a textile agency. Neither responded to requests for remark.

Again in Singapore, Dow’s efforts are already successful accolades.

On the night of Oct. 6, Fong and different companions within the Singapore shoe recycling program stepped onto the stage of a sublime ballroom on the Equarius Resort seaside resort on Sentosa Island, simply off the mainland. There they had been introduced with the “Most Sustainable Collaboration” award at a glitzy occasion hosted by the Singapore Worldwide Chamber of Commerce, the city-state’s oldest enterprise affiliation.

By Joe Brock and Joseph Campbell in Singapore and Yuddy Cahya Budiman in Jakarta; extra reporting by Xinghui Kok in Singapore; editor: Marla Dickerson