Max Romey, Ocean Plastics, and a Circular Footwear Industry

An interview with award-winning Alaskan artist, filmmaker, climate activist and NNormal Ambassador Max Romey exploring the health and environmental consequences of the global shoe industry and sustainable solutions for the future. 

By Christie Johnson

“No Lost Shoes” – How Max Romey and NNormal are Redefining the Footwear Industry

Consider the last time you chucked out an old pair of shoes. You perhaps did it without a second thought. 

Most shoes aren’t built to last so it’s likely you’ve thrown away a few pairs in your lifetime. 

Your discarded pair of kicks wait on the roadside next to the rest of your garbage ready to be picked up by your local waste collection. 

Because they are far too complex to recycle, your shoes will either be chucked into a landfill or incinerated. About 90% of others have the same fate. 

Yet did you know at least one of your shoes is likely to escape this demise? Not because of any divine sartorial intervention. No. Poor waste management practices and natural weather events have enabled one of your shoes to break free. And after riding numerous sewage systems and rivers, your little old shoe ends up in the ocean. 

Months, even years, go by as your shoe surfs powerful ocean currents. But one day its journey comes to an end. Your weary shoe washes up in one of the most remote places on earth: Katmai National Park in Alaska. And award-winning Alaskan artist, filmmaker, and climate activist, Max Romey, could be the person to pick it up. 

Max Romey drawing in a sketch book

Our shoes are making footprints long after we throw them away; a shocking reality Max brings home in his compelling film No Lost Shoes in collaboration with sustainable trail running shoe company NNormal. 

With a sketchbook close to his heart, Max embarks on an epic expedition to illustrate the devastating environmental impacts of shoe waste and other marine debris. 

But little did he know how many shoes he would find! 

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Max Romey walking at the beacj with a shoe visible on the sand
Max Romey sketching at the beach

Why Focus on Shoes?

Thousands and thousands of pounds of human trash wash up on Katmai’s shores every year. So why did Max focus on shoes?

As a long-standing trail runner, shoes have always been a huge part of Max’s life. “Shoes allow me to do the things that I want to do. They are literally my footprint. So it seems like a good metaphor to pick on a beach full of all the plastic on earth.” 

We can all see ourselves reflected in shoes; every pair carries us through life’s vast experiences. For Max, shoes are a physical representation of our environmental footprint. “Shoes are not the biggest offender that we’re finding but they are definitely the most tricky. And it’s personal. Our shoes are making footsteps without us.” 

Max estimates he has owned around 300 pairs of shoes in his lifetime. But like most of us: “I can’t account for any of those […] I would bet a lot of money that 0 have been recycled.”

For a big chunk of Max’s career, he traveled the globe making promotional films to sell shoes. 

But it’s always been sketching that has helped Max interpret his surroundings. “I grew up with dyslexia. It was something that really affected how I captured the world as a little kid.” His grandmother was a talented artist and always made sure Max had a sketchbook in hand. “I took refuge in the sketchbook because I could sketch and people just got it.”

It’s only recently Max has started to use sketching as a way to illustrate big complex environmental issues. “Issues so bright that you can’t look at them directly. For them, a sketchbook helps translate a little better.”

Max Romey sketching at the beach
zoomed out

The Health and Environmental Impact of Shoes 

Working with the Ocean Plastics Recovery Project, Max uncovers a lot of plastic waste in Katmai. “You can find everything on these beaches,” he tells us. “It’s kind of fun because you never know what you’re going to discover. Anything from shampoo bottles to hard hats.” 

However, finding old pairs of shoes is a particularly evocative experience. “There’s nothing more than the shoes that make me wonder who stepped in them. When you find a shoe you’ll see the indents sometimes of where that foot was and it just makes me wonder ‘Where is that person right now?’ How surprised they would be if I could bring their shoe back from all the way in Katmai Alaska!” 

A staggering 20 billion pairs of shoes are thrown away each year. And a lot of them end up in wild places like Katmai National Park. “It’s mind-boggling how remote Katmai is. It’s so remote that to see another human is kind of a wild thing,” says Max. “But then you’ll find a shoe from the Philippines from a person who might have never left their town.” 

But what happens if your shoes aren’t salvaged by Max or another member of the Ocean Plastics Recovery Project? “I thought I knew the impact of marine debris until I went back to Katmai this year and then it all changed. Plastics will never break down, they will only break up.”

Shoes are made up of many complex parts which are mostly plastic. The problem is: plastics can’t naturally biodegrade. When plastic enters the environment it can only break up into millions of tiny fragments called microplastics. And that’s when the real damage starts to happen. 

Microplastics have infiltrated just about every place on earth including the placentas of unborn babies. It’s believed there are now more microplastics than zooplankton in the ocean. 

So what does microplastic pollution mean for people and the planet? 

Max explains that addressing a changing climate and reaching carbon neutrality is important but we can’t ignore the long-term impact of plastic pollution. “These slow-moving tsunamis of plastic which are hitting coasts and are being shredded are also vitally important because they will impact these big ecosystems which already act as carbon sinks.”

The ocean plays a crucial role in capturing carbon from the atmosphere. Certain types of algae and phytoplankton consume carbon. When excreted, the carbon sinks to the seafloor and stays captured. But phytoplankton also ingest microplastic particles which increases the buoyancy of their carbon-filled excretion. The slower carbon sinks the more opportunity it has to be released back into the atmosphere.  

The impact of microplastics on human health is still largely unknown. However, some studies warn microplastics could release toxic chemicals linked to certain types of cancers. With humans consuming the equivalent of one credit card of plastic every week, it’s hard not to feel concerned. 

In marine animals, the chemicals released from plastics are disrupting hormones and causing reproductive issues. Following a worldwide ban in the late 1970s, high concentrations of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are still found in Orca populations. The last remaining Orca pod in Scotland, UK hasn’t produced a calf in over 25 years meaning they are at risk of extinction.  

The truth is: our health and the planet are intrinsically linked. What happens to nature happens to us. “The salinity of our blood is similar to the ocean water but there is now a percentage of microplastics in the ocean,” explains Max. “So for every drop of ocean water, you will get salt but also microplastics too. In the same way, they are also finding microplastics in trace amounts in people. What happens to the ocean is going to happen to us. The ocean is part plastic and so are we. And that’s just going to continue.” 

Max Romey walking along the beach, footprints and water

What is Circularity? 

Most manufacturing in today’s society is linear. We take resources from the earth, transform them into things we consume, then throw them away. A process that is incredibly damaging to people and the planet. 

Much like nature, a circular supply chain uses materials that can either physically return to the soil to biodegrade or can be recycled into something new. 

So, is the future of the shoe industry circular? “I don’t just think circularity is the future of the shoe industry,” says Max. “I think circularity is the future of successful civilization.” 

And it can all start with a shoe. “Sounds like a wild thing to say because shoes are just shoes. But I honestly think if you can figure out how to make shoes circular you can do it with anything.”

Since Max became a father, finding circular solutions to plastic waste and the climate crisis has taken on a new layer of meaning. “Even if we bury our heads in the sand, we know the damage this is going to do: to us, to our children, to their children.” 

We simply can’t afford to stand still any longer.

Boat from above with sketches in water

The Solution? NNormal No Trace Program

What do you do with an old pair of shoes? A question that has baffled the shoe industry for some time. Until now. 

Sustainable trail running shoe company NNormal has always done things a bit differently. “Before they even sold a pair of shoes or apparel they were taking others,” Max recalls. “It was really cool being part of those conversations where they were building sustainability into the threads of the shoe itself.” 

From the get-go, NNormal has flipped the linear supply chain on its head. Circularity is embedded into the very soul of the company. “It sounded like a really wild challenge,” says Max. “And so I said, of course, I’m in!” 

Alongside making competitive shoes that are also sustainable, NNormal is determined to find solutions to the millions of shoes that end up as trash each year. 

And so the No Trace Program was born! Rather than sending your old kicks to landfill, NNormal takes back unwanted gear to be recycled or repurposed into something new. 

As an NNormal Ambassador, Max tells us about his time visiting the factory where the circular magic happens. “It’s like triage for shoes. They take the shoes and triage them into what is still functional.” 

The shoes that are still usable are cleaned up and sent back into the market. The ones that can’t be restored get recycled into their components or upcycled if they are in rough condition. “The idea is whatever shape these shoes are in there is a net to catch them and keep them from being part of that linear model.” 

Shoes are complex but Max believes if we can master circular shoes then we have a strong blueprint for all of the plastics. “If you can recycle a shoe, you can recycle anything.” 

Max Romey holding a shoe surrounded by sketches

What You Can Do to Help Tackle Plastic Pollution 

Tackling plastic pollution and the climate crisis can feel like an insurmountable and demoralizing task. But Max encourages everyone to keep moving. “Keep taking steps in the right direction because there is no perfect solution right now. It feels like to make a dent you’d have to go to some heroics but all of these little steps locally make an enormous difference.”

Whether you decide to plant a tree or get involved in a community beach clean, it’s small local actions that will create resounding waves of positive change. “It’s just like an ultra marathon. It’s not about doing the whole race all at once. It’s just about constant forward progress, even if that’s crawling.”

When asked about any planet-saving initiatives on the horizon, Max responded, “I think I am going to make another film. Honestly about this exact same trip. The clean-ups are continuing to happen. I’ll make another film about marine debris this year and expect to probably do one a year until I die.”