“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” — Isaac Asimov
The largest migration on Earth is very rarely seen by human eyes, yet it happens every day. Billions of marine creatures ascend from as far as 2km below the surface of the water to the upper reaches of the ocean at night, only to then float back down once the sun rises.
This huge movement of organisms – ranging from tiny cockatoo squids to microscopic crustaceans, shifting for food or favourable temperatures – was little known to science until relatively recently.
In fact, almost all of the deep ocean, which represents 95% of the living space on the planet, remains inscrutable, despite the key role it plays in supporting life on Earth, such as regulating the air we breathe. Scientists are only now starting to overturn this ignorance, at a time when this unknown world is being subjected to rising temperatures, ocean acidification and the strewn waste expelled by humans.
“The deeper we go, the less we know,” said Nick Schizas, a marine biologist at the University of Puerto Rico. “The majority of habitat of Earth is the deeper areas of the ocean. Yet we know so little about it.”
From a distance, Adidas’ newest shoe looks seafoam green. But it’s an illusion; up close that pellucid hue gives way to white, with teal thread stitched around the upper in contoured rows, like lines on a topographic map. That thread comes from a company called Parley for the Oceans, and it’s special, spun from plastic waste and old fishing nets retrieved from the coast of Africa.
The company prototyped the idea last summer, but it wasn’t exactly ready-to-wear. “It was a functional shoe in that you could put it on,” says Alexander Taylor, an industrial designer who works on special projects with Adidas. But today, Adidas is releasing a limited edition run—just 50 pairs—of a new, improved version of the shoe that meets all the same standards as the rest of their athletic wear. The upper on the new design is entirely recycled plastic—about 16.5 old bottles and 13 grams of plastic from gill nets go into a single upper on one shoe. The only virgin material in the footwear is the thermoplastic polyurethane in the Adidas foam pellet Boost sole, which gets fused together with biowaste-powered steam. Plus, unlike the first shoe, which was unforgivably stiff, you can actually run, comfortably, in this one.
Adidas is only giving away 50 pairs because spinning plastic ocean trash into high-performance fibers is hard to do. The Adidas x Parley shoe is made of two kinds of recycled plastic: PET, used most commonly for water bottles, and nylon from gill nets. PET is relatively soft, easier than most to melt and reincarnate into fibers. (For the 2010 World Cup, Nike-sponsored teams wore jerseys made from recycled plastic yarn.)
The gill nets, though, were tough. For starters, there’s the smell. As their name suggests, gill nets are made for snaring fish by their gills, so used nets smell, not so surprisingly, like rotting fish. But even once textile makers de-smell-ify them through an intensive cleaning process, their job is just beginning. Gill nets are made from a heavy duty nylon that’s designed against dissolving in the ocean’s salty, crushing waves; making the nets soft enough for athleticwear requires grinding the plastic into a powder and then extruding it—a process that required new partnerships with materials engineers from across the United States, Germany, and Asia.
That’s where working with Adidas really benefited Parley. The former is a huge company with more capital to tinker with new technologies and the R&D connections to tackle a problem like turning tons of oceanic garbage into shiny, new apparel.
For sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor, the ocean is more than a muse — it’s an exhibition space and museum. Taylor creates sculptures of human forms and mundane life on land and sinks them to the ocean floor, where they are subsumed by the sea and transformed from lifeless stone into vibrant habitats for corals, crustaceans and other creatures. The result: Enigmatic, haunting and colorful commentaries about our transient existence, the sacredness of the ocean and its breathtaking power of regeneration.
“At Parley for the Oceans, we want to establish the oceans as a fundamental part of the debate around climate change,” Gutsch said. “Our objective is to boost public awareness and to inspire new collaborations that can contribute to protect and preserve the oceans. We are extremely proud that Adidas is joining us in this mission and is putting its creative force behind this partnership to show that it is possible to turn ocean plastic into something cool.”