Brooks’ latest shoe sole breaks down in afterlife

BOTHELL — Brooks Sports designs its shoes to go fast and far, but once they’re worn and tossed into the trash, they don’t go anywhere.

At least not for a millennium or so.

That’s because most athletic shoes have lots of plastic in them. Most shoes’ midsoles, which are at the heart of the shoes’ support structure, can take 1,000 years to deteriorate deep in a landfill.

After more than 18 months of research, Brooks has taken a step toward a greener shoe, however. Its new midsole, the company claims, can break down in 20 to 25 years.

“We know that once you possibly can’t wear the shoe anymore, it’s going to end up in a landfill. That’s its fate,” said Derek Campbell, a footwear materials engineer with Brooks. “What we wanted to do is turn that after into more of a positive.”

Being “green” is a nice selling point, but runners won’t buy it if the shoe doesn’t perform well. So Brooks’ engineers worked hard to make the BioMoGo, as it’s called, feel the same as the company’s patented MoGo midsole technology.

“Performance-wise, it’s virtually identical to the performance of the MoGo. That was the point of this project,” Campbell said.

The differences between the faster-biodegrading midsole and the regular one are minor. The BioMoGo midsoles include a natural additive that speeds up biodegradation by encouraging microbes to break down the material once it’s in a landfill.

“You make a small change in the right place in the materials that are in there, and it makes it biodegradable,” Campbell said.

What the BioMoGo won’t do is start breaking down prematurely under a runner’s foot, Campbell added. That’s because it still takes all the right conditions — little or no oxygen, lots of microbes and moisture — to start the process. The only way to get all the needed conditions is to bury the shoes in an active landfill.

About 200 runners tested the performance of the BioMoGo sole. The rest of the world won’t get the chance until the middle of next year, when the BioMoGo will be introduced on Brooks’ Trance 8 shoe.

By the end of 2009, all of the company’s running shoes will include it.

“Introducing BioMoGo into our footwear collection is just one example of Brooks’ commitment to helping create a healthy environment for the long run,” Pete Humphrey, Brooks’ vice president of footwear research and development, said via e-mail.

Humphrey pointed to the company’s other initiatives, including its introduction of HPR Green rubber in the soles that replaces much of the petroleum-based carbon black material with silica, the basic ingredient in sand. As it turns out, the silica also improves the sole’s traction and resistance to scuffs.

The manufacturing process for the MoGo midsole, introduced a few years ago, also allows it to be made more consistently without defects while reducing wasted materials by 50 percent. Brooks also has reduced its use of PVCs and is switching to more environmentally friendly shoe boxes that use more post-consumer recycled material and soy-based inks.

Campbell said many of Brooks’ customers are oriented toward fitness and the outdoors; they understand the importance of trying to be more environmentally conscious.

“Our demographic is very, very clued in on this. We don’t have to explain to them why we are doing this,” he said.

And right now, Brooks is among the industry’s leaders in terms of “green” efforts. While makers such as Nike and Patagonia offer casual footwear that uses more natural, biodegradable materials, Brooks is unique among running shoes in that regard, Campbell said.

Warren Greene, brand editor and shoe reviewer for Runner’s World magazine, said Brooks “blew him away” with their presentation about the BioMoGo during this fall’s meeting with the company. Greene said he had a chance to briefly try on a pair, but he couldn’t judge their performance.

“Runners aren’t going to sacrifice performance, period,” he said. But if the BioMoGo works as well as Brooks’ other midsoles, it could greatly advance green efforts in the industry, he said.

“I think a lot of companies are sniffing around this issue and tackling it from different directions,” Greene said. New Balance, for example, is making some parts of its shoes with recycled materials, and Nike has, for years, shredded old shoes so they can be recycled for other uses.

While Brooks may be the first with a greener midsole, Greene said he would bet competitors are already working on similar products.

That said, Campbell said plenty of parts in the average running shoe will still take decade upon decade to disappear.

“We think it’s really a process. There was no way we were going to launch a shoe where all the parts were sustainable. It would take years,” he said.

So that’s the new mission for Brooks’ researchers: make the rest of the shoe greener. Campbell said the development of new materials such as bioplastics, which are derived from plants instead of petroleum, could improve the feasibility of such developments.

Reporter Eric Fetters: 425-339-3453 or

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