Mayank Makhija

Published: June 13, 2023

This story was supported by Climate Tracker and Break Free from Plastic

Photo: A visual explaining different recycled components used by Thaely in its sneaker which are totally upcycled from waste materials making it one of the most talked about innovation and sustainable products in the sneaker market in India. (Graphic via Thaely)

Thaely, an Indian footwear company is on a mission to make sneakers sustainable and provide a solution to global plastic pollution. Instead of using new materials to produce a pair of shoes, Thaely is turning to other sources – used plastic bags and bottles.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, 14 million metric tons of plastic enters and damages aquatic ecosystems a year, and greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastic are expected to account for 15% of the total emissions allowable by mid-century if humanity is to cap the warming of the planet to 1.5 °C.

Ravi Trivedi, the founder of Trio Tap Technologies, wears Thaely’s Y2K sneaker while explaining the process at one of the Material Recovery Facilities in Gurugram, on the outskirts of New Delhi, India. Thaely gets its plastic bags and bottles from this facility which are then processed further to produce ThaelyTex sheets and rPET fabric for sneakers.

Founded in 2020, Thaely—which means plastic bag in Hindi—is revolutionizing the footwear industry. “Plastic bottles have been recycled for decades. It’s the most commonly recycled plastic item, but there is no real focus given to plastic bags even though they make up for about 14 percent of all plastic pollution in the ocean,” says Ashay Bhave, founder of Thaely.

Ashay, who hails from India’s financial capital Mumbai, studied footwear design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Then, he took entrepreneurship at Amity University, Dubai, where the prototype of the shoe came as an idea for a design project.

Ashay’s startup is in the final stage of development and has already won several awards for innovative and sustainable products.

From waste to sneakers

The journey starts at a waste management facility in Gurugram, on the outskirts of Delhi, where plastic bags are segregated, washed, and sanitized. The finished product in the form of sheets is transported to Jalandhar, a city located in the neighboring state of Punjab, where they are cut according to the required patterns.

They started with producing 50 pairs a week and slowly scaled up to 300 pairs weekly, as the demand rose. The company initially struggled to gather materials, since trash in India comes from all kinds of places and is not properly segregated. Currently, Thaely produces only a single design model called Y2K with four color options priced at roughly USD 100.

Every pair of sneakers made by Thaely uses recycled components made from 10 waste plastic bags and 12 plastic bottles along with industrial rubber waste. Most of the bags are cut into squares and fused using a heat press, producing a textile that resembles cloth—called Thaely Tex by the company.

Elements of the sneaker—including Thaely Tex sheets and rPET fabric made from recycled plastic bottles—are stitched together. All components, including the glue, are 100% vegan. Each pair of sneakers is packaged in a reusable shopping tote bag made from four plastic bottles, and a box made from recycled paper embedded with basil seeds and dyed with waste coffee grounds.

India’s waste problem

A worker unloads plastic pet bottles from the unsegregated waste collected from the nearby residential areas, at Trio Tap’s Material Recovery Facility in Gurugram- one of the major satellite cities of New Delhi. Thaely gets its plastic bags and bottles from this facility which are then processed further to produce ThaelyTex sheets and rPET fabric.

In 2020, 4.1 million metric tons of plastic waste were generated in India, according to the environmental watchdog National Green Tribunal. A third of this waste is not recycled and ends up in waterways and landfills.

To solve the problem, Thaely partnered with Triotap Technologies, a waste-removal company that hires rag pickers. This opportunity gave the rag pickers a steady paycheck, indoor sorting space, and a dignified job with social inclusion. They are also equipped with protective gear for safety.

Triotap Technologies collects dry waste and segregates it in its Material Recovery Facility (MRF) for further processing. For shoes, workers soak plastic bags in water mixed with a detergent solution before they are cut and fused.

The company also appointed ‘Green Warriors’ in residential neighborhoods who are responsible for sensitizing and raising awareness about the importance of segregating waste at source, reducing the un-recycled waste reaching landfills.

The municipal bodies spend 70 to 80% of their budgets on waste disposal. These results in huge mountains of trash on the outskirts of cities in India,” says Ravi Trivedi, founder of Troitap Technologies. “If recycling and waste management are done sustainably, one can earn from it. Only five to seven percent of total waste would end up in the landfills,” he further adds.

Sustainable revolution

According to a 2020 paper published by Nilesh Jadhav and Akshay Jadhav of the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai, more than 21 billion pairs of footwear are manufactured globally each year

This creates a humongous amount of waste generated from the footwear and leather sectors. The maximum percentage of footwear waste is generated from post-consumer footwear waste, i.e. end-of-life footwear which mainly goes into the landfill,” the paper read.

Plastic waste along with items thrown into the river by devotees accumulates along the banks of the holy river Yamuna in New Delhi, India. Hundreds of devotees offer rituals in its frothy and toxic waters, sometimes even immersing themselves in the river for a holy dip, to mark special occasions and festivals.

The paper recommended that recycling and product recovery activities should be identified and studied to reduce the land-filling of waste footwear products and hazardous substances which could enter the environment and impact human health.

Thaely recycled roughly 50,000 plastic bags and 45,000 plastic bottles with their first batch of 1,700 sneakers. The company also allows customers to trade in worn-out sneakers in exchange for discounts, leading to responsibly up-cycling their products. In the beginning, it was tough as manufacturing brought up costs. But as Thaely grew, the dynamics changed and now the company is easily recovering its operational costs.

Bhave says the company signed large distribution agreements in Australia and is inking deals in Europe, the Americas, and parts of Asia. “So, we’re going to have a lot of physical presence and planning to do the same thing in India. They will be everywhere and unavoidable,” he says.

Thaely is also trying to launch some new options for the Indian customer base, providing a range of shoes to choose from in the budget segments and identifying the trend in the Indian market. Other products in the pipeline include bags, t-shirts, and different shoe options.

It is creating a sustainable revolution in the $70 billion sneakers industry by offering healthy competition with global giants like Adidas and Nike in shoes made from recycled plastic and by providing a financially viable alternative that is as sustainable as other options available in the market.

Though Thaely’s contribution might be small in comparison to the amount of waste it can recycle through its product, the impact of this is very large as it started a conversation on a subject that was earlier untouched by many.

One good thing about us is that we started Thaely with sustainability and ethical practices in mind already. We already built a space for ourselves while others have to reinvent themselves,” Ashay explains.