Joe Brock, Yuddy Cahya Budiman and Joseph Campbell, Singapore – At a rundown market on the Indonesian island of Batam, a small location tracker was beeping from the back of a crumbling second-hand shoe store.
A Reuters reporter followed the high-pitched ping to a mound of old sneakers and began digging through the pile. There they were: a pair of blue Nike running shoes with a tracking device hidden in one of the soles.
These familiar shoes had traveled by land, then sea and crossed an international border to end up in this heap. They weren't supposed to be here.
Five months earlier, in July 2022, Reuters had given the shoes to a recycling program spearheaded by the Singapore government and U.S. petrochemicals giant Dow Inc. In media releases and a promotional video posted online, that effort promised to harvest the rubberized soles and midsoles of donated shoes, then grind down the material for use in building new playgrounds and running tracks in Singapore.
Dow, a major producer of chemicals used to make plastics and other synthetic materials, in the past has launched recycling efforts that have fallen short of their stated aims. Reuters wanted to follow a donated shoe from start to finish to see if it did, in fact, end up in new athletic surfaces in Singapore, or at least made it as far as a local recycling facility for shredding.
To that end, the news organization cut a shallow cavity into the interior sole of one of the blue Nikes, placed a Bluetooth tracker inside, then concealed the device by covering it with the insole. The tracker was synched to a smartphone app that showed where the shoe moved in real time.
Within weeks, the blue Nikes had left the prosperous city-state and were moving south by sea across the narrow Singapore Strait to Batam island, the app showed. Reuters decided to put trackers in an additional 10 pairs of donated shoes to see if wayward pair No. 1 had been a fluke.
It wasn't. None of the 11 pairs of footwear donated by Reuters were turned into exercise paths or kids' parks in Singapore.
Instead, nearly all the tagged shoes ended up in the hands of Yok Impex Pte Ltd, a Singaporean second-hand goods exporter, according to the trackers and that exporter's logistics manager. The manager said his firm had been hired by a waste management company involved in the recycling program to retrieve shoes from the donation bins for delivery to that company's local warehouse.
But that's not what happened to the shoes donated by Reuters. Ten pairs moved first from the donation bins to the exporter's facility, then on to neighboring Indonesia, in some cases traveling hundreds of miles to different corners of the vast archipelago, the location trackers showed.
Using the smartphone app to trace the movement of each shoe, Reuters journalists later traveled by air, land and sea to recover three pairs – including the blue Nikes – from crowded bazaars in Indonesia's capital Jakarta, and in Batam, which lies 12 miles (19.3 kilometers) south of Singapore. Four pairs ended up in locations in Indonesia that were too remote for Reuters to track down in person. In three other cases the trackers stopped sending a signal after they reached Indonesia.
The 11th pair remains in Singapore, but their fate is not what Dow and Sport Singapore had promised in media releases and a promotional video posted online.
Those shoes – a pair of men's white Reeboks – ended up in a public housing project about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from a community sports center where Reuters had dropped them into a donation bin on Sept. 8. Its tracker still blinks from that location, according to the app, an indication that they may have been taken from the donation bin. Reuters visited the housing project but wasn't able to find the exact location of the shoes.
Presented with Reuters' findings early this year, Dow said on Jan. 18 that it had opened an investigation along with Sport Singapore, a state agency, and other sponsors of the program: French-owned sporting goods retailer Decathlon S.A.; banking giant Standard Chartered plc; ALBA W&H Smart City Pte. Ltd (Alba-WH), a local waste management firm; and B.T. Sports Pte Ltd, a Singaporean firm responsible for shredding the donated footwear at a local facility.
On Feb. 22, Dow said in an emailed statement to Reuters that the investigation had concluded and, as a result, Yok Impex would be removed from the project, effective March 1. It did not explain why a used-clothing exporter had been involved in retrieving footwear from the donation bins, but said the program's partners were now searching for another company to collect the shoes.
"The project partners do not condone any unauthorized removal or export of shoes collected through this program and remain committed to safeguarding the integrity of the collection and recycle process," said the statement, which Dow issued on behalf of all the sponsors.
Reuters reporters visited the premises of Yok Impex on Feb. 23 to ask about whether it had been removed from the project. The trader's accountant, June Peh, told Reuters the firm would be leaving the program when its one-year contract comes to an end, without giving a reason for its exit or an exact date.
In January, Decathlon sent Reuters a statement saying it had not authorized the export of any shoes from the program. Standard Chartered and B.T. Sports did not respond to requests for comment. Sport Singapore and Alba-WH referred questions to Dow. Alba-WH is a partnership between ALBA Group, a major German waste management company, and Wah & Hua Pte Ltd, a Singaporean waste disposal firm. The two companies did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
Reuters tracked the 11 pairs of shoes over a six-month period. All the footwear was placed in different donation barrels around Singapore between July 14 and Sept. 9 of last year. While the sample was small, the fact that none of these shoes made it to a Singapore recycling facility underscores weaknesses in the system.
The findings come as environmental groups say chemical companies like Dow are making exaggerated or false claims about recycling in order to burnish their green credentials, and to undermine proposed regulations to rein in the soaring production of plastics used in single-use packaging and fast fashion.
The donated shoes that ended up in Indonesia have added to a flood of illegal second-hand clothing pouring into that developing country, according to a senior government official there, who said such cast-offs pose a public health risk, undercut its local textile industry and often pile more waste into its already bulging landfills.
Dow told Reuters the Singapore shoe project was making progress. A sports facility under construction in Jurong, a district in western Singapore, will use recycled shoe material in its surfaces, Dow said in its January statement. The company also pointed to Kallang Football Hub, a new soccer complex whose running track purportedly was the first in Singapore to be made from recycled shoe granules. Dow said these builds will use the 10,000 kilograms (22,000 pounds) of recycled shoe material that have been produced through the Singapore recycling project so far.
Reuters was unable to verify if these sports surfaces had been built because both complexes are under construction and cordoned off from the public.
A pilot project in 2019 collected 21,000 pairs of shoes, Paul Fong, Dow's Singapore manager, said in a promotional video posted on social media in July 2021 when the nationwide program was launched. Another pilot project in 2020 collected 75,000 pairs of shoes, Fong said in that video. Fong did not respond to emailed questions.
Dow and its partners declined to say how many of the shoes collected during the pilot phase had gone on to be recycled, nor would they provide those figures for the countrywide rollout. They did not explain what procedures were in place to ensure that donated shoes weren't exported, diverted for resale or pilfered from bins.
Dow manufactures silicone rubber and plastic used in soles and midsoles of sports shoes. The multinational and Sport Singapore said in their 2021 media releases that their "first of its kind" program would divert 170,000 pairs of shoes annually from the landfill. The program partners did not respond to questions about what would happen to these shoes or how many would be recycled to make sports surfaces.
Under the slogan "Others see an old shoe. We see the future," they called on the public to donate used shoes with rubberized soles to help ease the burden on Singapore's incinerators and its only landfill.
Dozens of wheelie bins for donations were placed across the city-state of 5.6 million people. These containers turned up in parks, community centers, schools and outlets of retail sponsor Decathlon. Singapore residents began depositing thousands of used sneakers, flip-flops and school shoes. In the promotional video, members of the public, including school children, talked enthusiastically about donating.
"I contributed 15 pairs of shoes," student Zhang Youjia said in the video, which was produced by Dow.
The ten pairs donated by Reuters that were exported moved initially from the recycling drop-off bins to the warehouse of Yok Impex, situated in west Singapore close to the island's biggest dockyard.
From there, the shoes traveled by sea to Batam, an entry point for goods entering Indonesia, which has a population of more than 270 million people, the fourth-largest in the world.
Guided by the smartphone app, Reuters in December followed two of the trackers to the same location in Batam: Pertokoan Cipta Prima, a sprawling flea market catering to low-income shoppers. There, dozens of vendors working out of rows of crumbling concrete shops patched with tarpaulin and metal sheets were selling everything from T-shirts and refrigerators to plastic toys.
The news agency spotted half a dozen stores selling used shoes, all clustered in the same area. At three of them, Reuters saw footwear stuffed into sacks emblazoned with the words "Yok Impex," along with the Singapore company's dolphin logo.
The first pair to be tracked down were the blue Nike running shoes. The app led to a gloomy, cluttered shoe store. But the sneakers weren't on display. Using a function on the app to make the tracker start beeping, a reporter followed the sound to the back of the shop, finally locating those Nikes at the bottom of a mound of loose footwear. It had been five months since Reuters had deposited them into a donation barrel at a gleaming Decathlon store in Singapore. Reuters bought them back for 180,000 rupiah ($12).
The second tracker – tucked into a pair of women's black Nikes – was located at a nearby shop. Reuters had dropped those shoes into a Dow recycling bin at a Singapore community center in September, three months earlier. They cost 120,000 rupiah ($8) to repurchase.
Other shoes went on a far longer voyage.
A pair of pink and orange New Balance sneakers – donated by Reuters in Singapore on Sept. 7 – landed in the same Batam market a week later, the tracking app showed. By early October, they had moved to a nearby island called Bintan, before making a 400-mile journey to Medan, a city of 2.4 million people in northern Sumatra. On Oct. 10, the shoes traveled another 800 miles to Indonesia's capital Jakarta, according to the app.
Indonesia's second-hand clothing industry is made up of a complex network of traders, and they often exchange goods across different regions, two garment merchants told Reuters.
Three weeks later, on Nov. 1, two Reuters reporters searched a frenzied mall in Jakarta looking for the shoes, eventually discovering them in a cramped shop on the third floor. The sneakers, freshly cleaned and fitted with a new pair of laces, had crisscrossed Indonesia on a marathon eight-week journey. They cost Reuters 300,000 rupiah ($20) to buy back.
To learn more about Yok Impex's role in the movement of these shoes, Reuters on Jan. 6, 2023, paid an unannounced visit to that used-clothing exporter, and was invited onto the premises. There reporters spotted wheelie bins from Dow's shoe program stacked up in a backyard. Inside, women sorted through tables piled high with old shoes, carefully placing them into piles and then transferring them into sacks like the ones seen at the Batam flea market.
Yok Impex's logistics manager, Tony Tan, told Reuters that waste handler Alba-WH was paying his company to collect the shoes from the donation bins around Singapore and then deliver the shoes back to Alba-WH.
Tan said Yok Impex did not export shoes it collected for the program. When informed that Reuters had found shoes it had donated being resold in Batam by merchants who had Yok Impex sacks in their shops, Tan said it was possible that shoes from the program got placed in error with other footwear it exports to Indonesia.
"Sometimes the workers mix it up. I'm not sure because we all collect from some other suppliers," Tan said. "It's a mistake. I think, some mistake." Tan did not elaborate.
Where did the shoes go?
A recycling program spearheaded by the Singapore government and Dow Inc promised to repurpose old sneakers into material for use in building playgrounds and running tracks in Singapore. Reuters placed Bluetooth trackers in 11 pairs of shoes and dropped them at different recycling bins around Singapore to follow their journey. None ended up in a local recycling center. Most were shipped out of the country, some traveling hundreds of miles.
In 2015, Indonesia's Ministry of Trade introduced the Prohibition of the Import of Used Clothing regulation. The measure banned the import of used clothes and footwear over concerns about hygiene and the potential of these items to spread disease, as well as the need to protect the local textile industry.
Veri Anggrijono, Director General of Consumer Protection and Trade Control at the trade ministry, told Reuters that the illegal second-hand clothing import market in Indonesia is worth millions of dollars a year.
"It's a well-organized activity because when we raid them in one place, then it will go quiet, then continue again," Anggrijono told Reuters in an interview at his office in Jakarta. He said the importer is the party liable under the law, not the exporter or market seller.
Anggrijono said importers can be charged under trade and consumer protection laws, which carry penalties that can include imprisonment and fines. But he said so far the only action the trade ministry has taken is to revoke import licenses, as well as seizing and destroying used clothing.
A torrent of cheap, unregulated second-hand clothing flowing into Indonesia also adds to the country's mounting garbage problem, said Dharmesh Shah, a policy advisor to the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, a nonprofit working on waste pollution. He said much of that merchandise is in such poor condition that vendors can't resell it.
"They sort through it and a very small percentage is actually reusable," Shah told Reuters. "It just gets burned in open dumps or goes into rivers or in landfills."
Two market vendors in Batam, who asked not to be named, told Reuters they buy sacks of shoes of differing grades from used-clothing traders such as Yok Impex, but don't know exactly what they're getting until they open them up. They said it's not uncommon to throw out half the shoes they receive because the footwear is not good enough to sell.
This is not the first novel recycling scheme launched by Dow that hasn't lived up to its billing.
In 2021, a Reuters investigation found that a program in Idaho that the company said was using breakthrough technology to turn plastic waste into clean fuel was actually burning plastic trash to fuel a cement plant.
At the time, a Dow spokesperson said the Boise program was helping to "transform waste into valuable products."
The same year, Reuters found that a Dow-backed project in India, which was supposed to collect plastic trash from the Ganges river and use high-tech machinery to transform the waste into clean fuel, had been shut down following regular equipment malfunctions.
The India project was run by The Alliance To End Plastic Waste (AEPW), a nonprofit group set up by big oil and chemical companies. At the time, a spokesperson for the AEPW confirmed that the project had ended, due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Selling the promise of new recycling technologies, whether to turn shoes into playgrounds or plastic bags into clean fuel, is an attempt to lull the public into a false sense of security about the environmental impact of increased consumerism, environmental groups like Greenpeace and Break Free From Plastic say.
Dow declined further comment on those claims or its track record on recycling.
Jan Dell, founder of The Last Beach Cleanup, a U.S. nonprofit focused on reducing plastic pollution, said large petrochemical companies should have to report on the results of their sustainability projects with the same transparency as the profit-making parts of the business.
"Dow promised to pick up these shoes and grind them into materials and make them into playgrounds, and instead they're being found all over another country. They literally cannot be believed," said Dell, after being given details of Reuters' findings.
Promises about new recycling technologies also make good business sense for petrochemical companies, according to Dell, who said throw-away consumer culture is good for their profits. People are more likely to purchase more of a product when they are told it can be recycled into something useful, according to a 2013 study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.
In its Jan. 18 statement, Dow said the shoe recycling partners are "energized by the common vision of sport championing a greener and more sustainable Singapore." Dow did not comment on the Journal of Consumer Psychology study.
Executives from the companies running the shoe recycling project collect a sustainability prize at an awards ceremony hosted by the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce (SICC) on Oct. 6, 2022. Handout via SICC
In July of last year, Dow launched a similar shoe recycling program in Malaysia, which has a population of 33 million people and neighbors Singapore to the north. In promoting that project, Dow's Fong pointed to the Singapore shoe program as the blueprint for success. For its Malaysian initiative, Dow partnered with a local nonprofit and a textile firm. Neither responded to requests for comment.
Back in Singapore, Dow's efforts are already winning accolades.
On the evening of Oct. 6, Fong and other partners in the Singapore shoe recycling program stepped onto the stage of an elegant ballroom at the Equarius Hotel beach resort on Sentosa Island, just off the mainland. There they were presented with the "Most Sustainable Collaboration" award at a glitzy event hosted by the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, the city-state's oldest business association.