The Link Axis is disassembled by hand and uses a greater amount of recycled material

Teardown: Nike ISPA Link trainers

Image credit: Nike

Sports apparel giant Nike looks to reshape design-for-recycling.

Fashion is often charged alongside technology as one of the main culprits when it comes to burgeoning landfill and stuttering progress on recycling. Within fashion, trainers are seen as a particular problem. How that market’s big brands are looking to address growing criticism may contain interesting pointers for other markets.

According to a recent edition of Channel 4’s ‘Dispatches’, the average Briton owns seven pairs of trainers, and of the 300 million shoes bought overall in the UK every year, about 90 per cent end up in landfill. Globally, 24 billion shoes are sold annually and trainers make up roughly a quarter. In environmental terms, all this translates into 1.4 per cent of carbon emissions, making footwear the world’s 17th biggest polluter by some estimates, ahead of aviation and even developed countries like Italy.

The programme, subtitled ‘The Truth About Adidas and Nike’, made several dispiriting observations about what the big sneaker companies are doing to lower their products’ environmental impact compared with their marketing. It uncovered more than a hint of greenwashing in terms of the claims being made for the recycled materials they already re-use.

As it went out, Nike also announced a strategy that could become a template for future and more effective circular design. It seeks to combine modularity, material selection and re-use.
The company has unveiled two trainers under the ISPA Link brand. ISPA stands for ‘improvise, scavenge, protect and adapt’, the four objectives of a multidisciplinary engineering-to-design group tasked with delivering on the 10 principles in the company’s Circular Design Guide (see box below). The main initial focus for Link is ‘disassembly’.

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Image credit: Nike

The first Link trainer puts modularity first, but also drops a big hint for technology. It uses no glue, unlike most modern footwear.

Instead, it can be picked apart in three by hand. The upper is attached to a series of plugs around the outsole. These have been positioned and engineered, Nike says, to still provide a close and comfortable athletic fit. Rather than shredding the entire shoe for recycling and then separating different materials so they can be appropriately processed, it is disassembled into more coherent units.

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Image credit: Nike

Apart from making recycling easier, this approach could also help to address our personal sneaker mountains by allowing owners to replace soles or uppers much as they would the strap on a smartwatch (though, strangely enough, Nike does not mention this in its initial marketing).

The first Link has just gone on sale, but the Link Axis will go a step further when it is launched early next year.

The same plug-and-play technique is used for the outsole and upper, but Link Axis makes greater use of already recycled materials. The upper will be made of 100 per cent recycled polyester and the sole tooling will be 100 per cent recycled thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU).

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Image credit: Nike

However, the cage – part of the sneaker that houses lacing and is used to improve torsion – will have only 20 per cent recycled TPU. For that component, Nike says that recycling can alter the material so that some new TPU needs to be part of the mix.

This is progress, but it highlights a wider problem with many current plastics. On one hand, companies are generally trying to re-use or replace them because they can persist in landfill for many years (ethylene vinyl acetate, for example, is used for many trainer insoles but can take a thousand years to decompose). On the other, each round of recycling typically degrades material quality to the point that after a third or fourth pass, re-use options become very limited (basketball courts and arena bedding for riding schools, for example).

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Image credit: Nike

Nike has nevertheless been able to scavenge TPU for the Link Axis from the sole airbags in shoes already returned under its existing Nike Grind recycling scheme. It also uses its Flyknit technology on the sneakers. This directly assembles the shape of an upper from the thread, rather than it being cut and sewn from cloth, and thus reduces the amount of material needed.

Both Link trainers are to be launched at premium prices above £200, but Nike says its goal is to expand the same approach across more of its range.

“For mould-breaking models like the Link and Link Axis to have full impact, the innovation must be scaled. That action is under way,” the company says. “A holistic look at Nike product lines and supply chains is already determining where new approaches can be implemented to reach a wider audience.”

This kind of philosophy is not new. But in technology, it is currently evolving primarily for design around the right-to-repair and extensions to hardware lifespans (even though Apple and others have recycling schemes).

Meanwhile for footwear, several niche brands are already addressing recycling around not just disassembly but also materials, including novel plastics that degrade more easily.

Nike, though, has the world’s most valuable clothing brand, so when it makes a big push like this to promote and ease recycling in a controversial sector, it will be noticed, probably more than previous attempts that have arguably put marketing before delivery.  The Link range is likely to set higher benchmarks for the company’s efforts among campaigners and raise consumer expectations in both its markets and more widely.

Although this is not an end-state, particularly for materials science.

However, one further downbeat observation needs to be made when it comes to the UK specifically. The Link range is expected to go on sale here, but Nike itself cannot yet recycle it or any of its other products. Nike Grind is not currently available because the company says post-Brexit trade restrictions prevent it economically sending old trainers to its recycling facilities within the EU.

Perhaps though, the company could develop a solution by working with a local specialist. UK pioneers include the Traid apparel recycling network and Loughborough University’s Centre for Sustainable Manufacturing and Recycling Technologies.

Or maybe Jacob Rees-Mogg could add trainers to his to-do list alongside vacuum cleaners. After all, landfill weighs the same whether you measure it in pounds or kilograms.

Circularity squared

Nike’s 10 Circular Design Guide principles

10 Principles of Nike's circular design guide

Material choices


Waste avoidance


Green chemistry




Circular packaging

New Models

Source: ‘Circularity – Guiding the Future of Design’.

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