The Argentine factory that creates footwear with tires: ‘Our shoes are garbage’

In Argentina, wheel replacement produces more than 130,000 tons of waste. The company Xinca is turning them into sneakers

Uno de los fabricantes de los zapatos ecológicos de Xinca
One of the manufacturers of Xinca's ecological shoes.Gentileza Xinca y Nico Fridman

Argentina is home to 15 million motor vehicles, according to statistics from 2021. Each one has tires that must be replaced for safety and regulatory reasons. This inevitable process produces between 130,000 and 150,000 tons of waste per year, according to data from the National Institute of Industrial Technology (INTI). Despite existing bills about environmental responsibility, producers are not required by the government to recycle the material, which can take more than 600 years to decompose. In most cases, recycling initiatives and effective solutions continue to come from civil society organizations and private companies.

“Our shoes are trash,” says the advertisement for Xinca, a company in the province of Mendoza which three friends created in 2013. The business produces footwear made from recycled tires. “In Argentina, a lot is discarded and little is recycled. After their primary use, there is no telling what we should do with the tires. In Africa, they usually make sandals by cutting the tire directly, but the aesthetic was bad. We wanted to break with that paradigm by demonstrating that a quality product can be made with garbage,” said Alejandro Margor, co-founder of the company with Nazareno El Hom and Ezequiel Gatti.

Xinca's shoes, made from discarded tires in Argentina.
Xinca's shoes, made from discarded tires in Argentina.Gentileza Xinca y Nico Fridman

Obtaining the raw material for manufacturing is an easy task. Any Argentine tire shop discards hundreds of tires per week. Xinca works with a recycling plant that receives trucks that want to discard the tire material, made up of natural rubber, synthetic rubber (a plastic polymer), metal and other materials.

“Only between 5% and 7% of the tires are recycled. But we know that making the shoes is only part of the job. If you can’t sell it, the intention to recycle is useless. That’s why we design simple, timeless, unisex pairs. We also wanted to break with another paradigm: that of expensive sustainable products,” added Margor.

A pair of shoes from an international brand costs 20,000 pesos (about $92) in the country. Meanwhile, the cheapest model of the “eco shoes” — as Xinca calls them — goes for only 6,000 ($28).

Ten years after its founding, the company produces between 1,000 and 1,500 pairs of shoes per month. They are sold in Argentina via a dozen stores in different cities and the company’s website. “In Argentina, the rules change all the time, and it is difficult to see into the future. In other countries, the ecosystem is easier, as is access to investment. Another difficulty is reaching consumers who are encouraged to choose products that are made with trash. People understood that with purchases they can generate a positive change,” Margor said.

The company not only creates products with less environmental burden, made with recycled tires and fabrics. It also has a social impact in its region: 90% of the production is carried out in workshops of the San Felipe Mendoza prison. “We wanted to work with people who have not had the luck or the opportunities that we had access to. Beyond giving them a job, we saw the possibility of helping to build habits. It was a great challenge to produce from a prison and a good part of the company’s profitability returns in machinery and investment. We pay them for their work the same — or perhaps a little more — than what is established for shoe workers in Argentina,” he said.

Ana María Alfaro attests to the transformative power of work. She was imprisoned for 14 years in a Mendoza jail. Four years ago, she regained her freedom and was hired by Xinca. “In prison I participated in many workshops in which I learned to be careful and to do things well. Today I can make a living doing handcrafts. From my own experience, I know that for the men of San Felipe it means a great benefit. Tomorrow, when they are released, they can continue producing and get into a work routine,” said Alfaro, who oversees quality control of the products that arrive from the prison.

The company’s efforts and other initiatives are valuable but are still insufficient to address the quantity of tire waste. The local organization Fundación Ambiente y Medio warns that most tires end up in open or collected dumps, which encourages the proliferation of rodents and dengue-vector mosquitoes. They are also often burned for disposal, which generates toxic gases that contain sulfur, carbon dioxide, chlorinated compounds and other chemicals that harm human health and the environment.

“It is imperative to develop and approve an extended producer responsibility law, in order to hold accountable those who make the products. In this case, the tire industry should have to bear the cost of logistics and delivery to the treatment plants that exist today in the country,” said Luciana Dorigo, executive director of the foundation.

90% of tire material is recyclable, but institution emphasizes that the percentage of reuse in Argentina is very low. “We know that the main tire recycling plant in the country only manages to work with 10% of the 150,000 tons of tires discarded annually,” Dorigo added.

Tire design hasn’t changed much over the decades, and its production continues to have major environmental consequences. Its material can be reused in playgrounds, sports fields and construction equipment. Or in a pair of sneakers. Worn-out tires shouldn’t be the end of the road.

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