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Portugal's shoemakers rethink business models, recycle in green push

By Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira

FELGUEIRAS, Portugal (Reuters) - The factory worker grabbed a handful of worn-out shoes and fed them into roaring machines that chopped and crushed and transformed them into "eco-rubber" - part of a green push in Portugal's footwear industry.

The rubber is then transformed into recycled soles and other products sold by Bolflex - one of 120 Portuguese shoemakers that signed a pact on Friday to cut the sector's emissions by half by 2030 - and its clients.

The company also recycles rubber waste from its soles, an operation that it says saves it around 1 million euros ($1.05 million) a year.

"We were throwing away, burying, sending to landfill about 300 tonnes" of materials a year, sales head Pedro Saraiva said at the factory in the northern town of Felgueiras.

Friday's "shoes green pact" was drawn up by the Portuguese Footwear Association, representing companies in Europe's third largest footwear producer after Italy and Spain. More than 90% of their production is exported, it says.

The companies signed up to 10 commitments, including on energy efficiency, product design and packaging, and would be audited independently, the Association's Paulo Gonçalves told Reuters.

Another signatory, the shoemaker Ambitious, was planning to get recycled material into around half of its shoes by 2025, marketing chief Miguel Vieira said.

The new products and technologies often came with a higher price tag than older, non-sustainable products, Saraiva and Vieira said.

People were still more likely to buy the cheapest option available and a change in consumer and companies' behaviour was still five to ten years away, Saraiva said.

EU Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius told Reuters government support was crucial to accelerate the process.

Non-sustainable businesses should pay more for dealing with their waste and "clear legislation" was needed to avoid greenwashing, he said. "Those who really go that extra mile (in) innovation, ensuring their product can be recycled, repurposed, reused... (should) be incentivised".

(Reporting by Catarina Demony, Miguel Pereira and Pedro Nunes; Editing by Charlie Devereux and Andrew Heavens)