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The Dumping and Burning of Nike Scrap Shoe Rubber

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On June 16, my team and I left my hotel at 6:30 a.m. and drove 90 minutes to a Nike shoe factory in one of the industrial areas outside Jakarta, Indonesia. There we sat and waited (again). We were back on the beat looking to document the dumping and burning of Nike scrap shoe rubber.

This is an important issue because Nike has made major public statements about their supposed commitment to protecting the environment. In fact, if you read their most recent corporate responsibility report, it is loaded with claims and planned initiatives on how they say they will limit their global environmental footprint. I am unsure how successful they are going to be since it seems that they cannot even manage their trash in a way that is responsible.

As I wrote in an earlier post, I have been pushing Nike on this issue since I first discovered that shoe rubber from their plants was being dumped and burned in villages around the factories. For years, Nike denied any wrongdoing (note the following quote from Nike's Carolyn Wu).

"The disposal of footwear soles by burning that Mr. Keady discusses in his presentation is either counterfeit or unauthorized."
- Carolyn Wu, Issues Manager, Nike, Inc. ~ May 10, 2002

In 2009, Nike did admit, to me at least, that there was some validity to my claims. Just before my visit to Indonesia in 2009, Nike sent one of their top environmental people from Asia to investigate this issue. During his visit, this Nike exec sat outside a factory and waited for the dump truck to leave the plant. He followed it and found that the end of the line was a public dump where eventually Nike had to clean up 180 dump truck loads of scrap shoe rubber and spend thousands of dollars on an environmental remediation of the site. The resulting policy change was Nike's new waste management system.

The question I wanted answered was, "Is the waste management system really effective or it is simply another Nike public relations ploy?"

So...there we sat and waited.

The giant yellow dump truck rolled out of the factory gates around 10:15 a.m. We whipped our van around and followed it down the bumpy dirt road. I must share that I felt somewhat uneasy as we were doing this. In 2002, while doing similar research at a dump, I ended up being chased in my van by machete wielding preman (thugs) on motorcycles who worked for the mafioso that ran the dump. They eventually caught us, beat my driver and brought my team back to the dump where I ended up on my knees with the boss telling me, "If you come back here, I will kill you," as he stood over me with a sword drawn over my head.

The dump truck pulled into a makeshift recycling center that is run by the local community and started to unload. To not raise suspicions with the men who ran this operation, I posed as an American buyer of shoe scraps. We told them that I worked for a company that made artificial soccer fields and that we used this kind of material as a base. They bought the story. From our conversation I learned that they only received the scrap foam from the factory -- about one ton a day -- and it is sold to buyers that use it to make cushions for sofas, chairs, etc. There was no scrap shoe rubber dumped with them, but they told me where it was discarded, a dump site just up the road.

We made our way down the road and came upon the dump site that we were told about. It turned out that while we were at the community recycling center, that another dump truck must have left the plant and come to this site. As it unloaded its trash, we watched and waited. It took about 20 minutes for the truck to be emptied of its contents. It was morbidly fascinating to watch the people at the dump sort through the trash as it was pushed off the truck. They scavenged for plastic bottles and anything else that might have value if salvaged.

When the team of men from the factory finished their work, loaded back onto the truck and rolled out back onto the road, we kicked into action.

Alif told the man that ran the dump that I was a Canadian reporter doing a documentary on recycling efforts in Indonesia. Rather than TELL you what I found here, I offer the photos below and will allow you to judge if Nike's claims about their new waste management system are legit.

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Just an FYI, the kind of dumping I described above and that you can see in these photos, happens three to four times a day, every day, and the burning happens for hours every afternoon.

JUST(ice) DO IT.

This blog post was originally published on Jim Keady's site, TeamSweat.org.