These Shoes Walk the Sustainable Talk

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Thaely is turning India’s plastic waste into a sneaker that’s green from heel to toe.

India-born Ashay Bhave was pursuing a college business administration degree in Dubai and in need of a project for his portfolio. Through his mother, who worked at a waste management facility, he learned that, despite the proliferation of plastic bags, few get recycled. Eager for a design project for his portfolio, he decided to turn the plastic bags into shoes — creating the company Thaely, which means “bag” in Hindi. 

During Bhave’s final year of college, he submitted the prototype for a shoe constructed from plastic bags into a startup competition in Dubai and won. One of the judges was a Swiss social entrepreneur who became the company’s first investor. 

Through a few years of trial and error, Bhave was eventually able to create a material similar to leather that he’s dubbed ThaelyTex. The process of creating this material begins with washing and air drying plastic bags, then stacking them in layers of eight to ten bags and passing the stack through a heat press at a collaborating mill, Virendera Textiles. The resulting ThaelyTex, which has the look and feel of leather, then goes to a shoe factory, where metal forms die-cut it into pieces that will make up the shoe’s exterior. Patterns for the interior are cut from a material made of recycled polyethylene (PET) bottles, sourced from Waste2Wear India, a company that turns used plastics into textiles. Recycled industrial rubber and tires form the shoes’ soles, and vegan glue holds everything together. The laces, manufactured at Virendera Textiles, are also made of recycled plastic bottles. 

The tote bag used for packaging (provided by Waste2Wear) is also made from plastic bottles, and the shoebox (from a firm called Plantables) is recycled paper embedded with basil seeds that can be planted.  

Thaely’s materials come from a waste removal company that works with rag pickers — people who scavenge the garbage for what they can resell for cash. In keeping with its social responsibility pledge, the company ensures all employees fair compensation, a safe and comfortable work environment, and a five-day, eight-hour-a-day workday in an industry known for extended work hours. 

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The shoes come in four styles (two sneaker models, each in men’s and women’s), and U.S. customers can purchase them online for $69. When customers wear out their shoes, they can return them for a discount on a new pair. The company refurbishes or recycles the returned shoes at a collaborating company called the Shoe Laundry. 

Read more dispatches from around our pale blue dot:

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Kavitha Yarlagadda
Kavitha Yarlagadda
Kavitha Yarlagadda is an Independent writer based in Hyderabad, India. She is a civil engineer with a masters degree in environmental science. She writes about the environment, science, health, climate change, social issues, gender, development, and culture. Visit her at kavithayarlagadda.com
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