Biobased Sports Gears on the Rise

Equipment manufacturers on the renewable trail

Green is in for sports equipment manufacturers. This year, several companies launched ski boots, goggles, running shoes and other high-performance sports gear incorporating renewable-based chemicals, recycled materials, or both.

“We see a lot of renewable-based materials being incorporated in running and soccer shoes,” says Jean-Marc Galvez, global commercial manager at Merquinsa, a Spain-based thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) producer. He notes increasing overall demand for more renewable-based materials in the sports equipment market.

For example, Merquinsa is collaborating with Brooks Sports, a Washington, US-based sports equipment company, to develop sustainable performance running footwear. The bio-TPUs are renewable-sourced, with 20-90% bio-content, says Merquinsa. “Thanks to innovative green technologies developed, the performance of bio-TPUs in sports good materials are as good or better than traditional petroleum-based materials,” Galvez says. “Performance is especially important for sports good manufacturers that have brands to protect.”

In June, Merquinsa launched products under the Pearlthane ECO TPU grades made with US chemical giant DuPont’s Cerenol bio-polyol. The bio-polyols are said to be ideal soft segments for TPU elastomers. In addition to footwear, Merquinsa’s Pearlthane ECO can now be found in ski goggles and sports and watch belts. The Evolve collection of snow goggles, recently launched by Idaho, US-based Smith Optics, contain a Merquinsa bio-TPU with 44% renewable-based content, says Galvez.

Other producers are also providing Smith with renewable-based materials. In June, the company launched the Evolve line of sunglasses, whose frames are made entirely of bio-based polyamides Rilsan Clear G830 Rnewproduced by French specialty chemical company Arkema. The polyamides, which Arkema calls “the first fully transparent bio-based, high-performance polyamide designed for the optical market such as spectacle frames,” contain 54% bio-based raw materials, says Christophe Lacroix, global Pebax and Rilsan Clear business manager for Arkema’s technical polymer division.

Other firms using Arkema’s renewable-based chemistries in sports gear include Italian ski boot maker Scarpa, Austrian ski equipment company Atomic and Japanese footwear and apparel producer Mizuno.

“Arkema has the widest renewable-based chemistries offering for sports gear application as far as technical products are concerned,” says Lacroix. Aside from Rilsan Clear Rnew, he cites Arkema’s Pebax Rnew bio-based thermoplastic elastomer (TPE) and Rilsan polyamide 11, which is 100% made from castor oil, as examples.

Renewable footwear steps up
Mizuno launched late last year four new models of running shoes with Wave Technology midsoles incorporating Pebax Rnew. The bio-based TPE contains renewable materials ranging between 20% and 94%, depending on the application.

Scarpa’s Hurricane ski boot, launched last year, was also made with Pebax Rnew, making them the first bio-based ski boots in the market, says the company. Atomic’s ski boot Renu, launched early this year at the international sporting goods trade show ISPO in Munich, Germany, won in the footwear category of the event’s Eco Responsibility 2009 awards.

While the number of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) incorporating renewable-based materials in their sports products is growing, not all are eager to advertise it, especially in branded footwear, notes Lacroix. “One of the main challenges for OEMs is how to position from a market standpoint these kind of materials,” he says. “Marketing these products may affect the positioning of the company’s brands, the way they are perceived, at the consumer level, so this generally requires a lot of time and [consideration], especially for well-known OEMs, if they want to openly embrace renewable-based products,” Lacroix adds.

Brooks Sports has committed to the green trend. Earlier this year it launched its eco-friendly high-performance running shoe Green Silence, which uses recycled materials as well as soy-based inks and water-based adhesives. It is expected to hit the retail market in February 2010 at a price of $100 (€70). Last year, Brooks launched its BioMoGo midsole, which it claims as the world’s first biodegradable running shoe midsole.

France-based mountain sports company Salomon released to the market early this year its Ghost freerider alpine ski boot, which contains DuPont’s Hytrel RS (renewably sourced) TPE in the ski boot collar. DuPont says this particular elastomer grade contains 27% by weight renewably sourced polyol.

Hytrel RS can contain between 20% and 50% bio-polyol derived from corn or other natural-based feedstock. Marsha Craig, global business manager for renewably sourced materials at DuPont Engineering Polymers, notes the comparable or even better benefits of their RS materials compared with their petroleum-based alternatives.

“Our sporting goods customers, like other consumer segments, are showing a lot of interest in our renewable materials because of market pull from consumers,” says Craig. “Most of this work, however, is still in the early phases of application development.”

Leaping Hurdles
In the sporting goods category, most companies admit, eco-friendly products are often positioned at a premium. The current economic slowdown has impacted some of the demand for these products from the retail end, says Lacroix. “The response for renewable-based sporting goods products has been very good so far, especially from a technical standpoint. Unfortunately, OEMs have been affected by the global economic slowdown and thus far, most consumers at the retail end are attracted to cheaper products,” he adds. Lacroix says he expects this situation to improve as consumers regain confidence in their income.

Galvez notes that the economy of scale will further make value propositions for green sports goods very attractive.

Recycling: Closing the loop
When it comes to incorporating recycled materials, key challenges include cost, quality, consistency and security of supply. “The quality of the waste sources and the ability to develop and validate the recycled material in a collaborative mode are essential to success,” says Richard Bourdon, recycling development director for Rhodia Polyamide, a unit of France-based specialty chemicals firm Rhodia.

Recycled engineering plastics are rapidly finding their way into sports equipment such as lacing systems, fishing reels, components for fitness machines and mountain sports gears. Higher-end outdoor segments are expected to be the most demanding sport markets for high-quality recycled and renewable-based materials, notes Bourdon.

“We believe there will be an increasing demand for more renewable-based and high-quality recycled materials in the sports equipment market,” he says. “The environmental awareness of consumers practicing such activities is rather strong and they are more and more looking for products that are in line with their personal values for sustainable development.”

Rhodia says its Closed Loop business model fits its OEM partners’ requirements for creating eco-friendly products that offer equivalent technical and price performance compared with standard products. Products recycled under the Closed Loop process can use Rhodia’s 4earth brand of premium recycled polyamide, which, Bourdon says, offers OEMs certified recycled content and quantified environmental benefits.

Last April, Rhodia and French mountain equipment company Millet announced a collaboration to develop closed-loop recycling flows for polyamide with an initial project to recycle used mountain climbing rope into engineered plastic materials for the manufacture of mountain sports equipment.

Similar projects have already started in other markets such as automotive, furnishing and sports equipment, adds Bourdon. “Rhodia will disclose more details about these developments where first accomplishments will be achieved,” he says.


ICIS news, 2009-08-17.


Brooks Sports
Salomon Sports
Smith Optics