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Polymers are compatible with our environmental policy

An interview with Mathieu Gierlowski, Technical Director for plastics and composites at Decathlon.
Polymers are compatible with our environmental policy
© Decathlon
Polymers are compatible with our environmental policy

Although Decathlon already has a far-reaching reputation, could you introduce it in a few words?

Decathlon is a French retail chain specialising in sports and leisure goods that was created in the mid-1970s. It now has a presence in about sixty countries. What sets it apart from the competition is the fact that it has been designing a large part of the products it sells since the 1980s.

In your capacity as Technical Director, we imagine that you are personally involved in creating these products. Is that the case?

Yes, and that is almost the entire raison d'être of my department! We are a team that includes materials engineers whose role is to identify the best material according to its intrinsic properties and its cost, and methods engineers who assess feasibility based on available industrial processes, as well as prototypists.

© Decathlon

We are responsible for developing and even the optimisation of the products. Decathlon's objective is to produce high-performance, comfortable products for both beginner and experienced sports enthusiasts.
This involves identifying the right materials and production methods.

We are fortunate to work closely with the design firm that designs these products and have a workshop with injection moulding machines.

Do you use them for prototyping?

Yes, even though I think that the term "prototype" is not necessarily the best one with respect to such a tool. When we develop a product, we make our prototypes using the materials we intend to use in the industrialisation phase. For us, a prototype is not just a 3D printed model! It is certainly a longer and more expensive process, but when we industrialise a product, we are certain that it will perfectly match the users’ expectations. Let’s take the example of a handgrip for bodybuilding: with a simple 3D printed single-material prototype it is difficult to predict whether the object will be well balanced, whether it will fit comfortably in the hand, whether it will be responsive enough, whether or not it will make a noise, etc.

What is the innovation policy at Decathlon?

It is very important. We are constantly thinking about how our products will be used. We observe users a lot when they practice a sport. To do this, we travel to all the places where sports are practised and try to understand the users’ needs. To illustrate this, let’s take the example of our famous Easybreath mask for snorkelling.

We tried to design a mask that was very easy to use, that did not hinder movement and that made breathing easier.
The idea behind it was to make this leisure activity accessible to as many people as possible. I could also mention the tent that can be set up and taken down in 2 seconds, the seabed observation buoy, the 3-wheeled scooter, and many more.

© Decathlon

All these objects are made from plastics. They now seem to be the de facto material used. What are the reasons for this?

First of all, there is great diversity in their family! The range of plastics and composites is very broad, to say the least. Each polymer has its own properties and therefore its own performance. They range from hyper-technical polymers with incredible characteristics capable of withstanding extreme shock, heat and cold to more basic polymers that are suited for just about anything.

We use a choice matrix to select the right material with which to create an item. Basically, the matrix enables us to calculate a ratio that takes into account the expected performance of the material, its cost, its durability and its sustainability. In many cases, polymers come out on top.

Which products are you most proud of?

As you can imagine, there are many! Of course, there is the Easybreath mask, which is a perfect example of what polymers can do: its skirt is made of silicone to guarantee a perfect seal and a good hold on the face, the frame is made of polypropylene, and both the snorkel and the faceplate are made of polycarbonate. Of course, this mask has become emblematic, but I would also like to mention our Boost 300 downhill skis.

© Decathlon

We are the first in the world to have succeeded in manufacturing skis using the injection technique. They are mainly made of polyamide. We have also used this same technique to design a bow based on a combination of semi-crystalline polyamide and partially aromatic copolyamide. We are currently working on a football boot with a single-piece upper and sole. It is not yet on the market, so I cannot yet reveal which polymers are used in its composition. I think it is destined to make a big splash, because one of the weak points of football boots is that the binding between the upper and the sole always ends up coming apart.

Do you maintain a close relationship with polymer manufacturers?

Yes, at least in terms of the technology watch that we carry out. The field of polymers and composites is quite dynamic and things are constantly evolving. Polymer manufacturers know that we are attentive to this, so they also keep us informed of the evolution of their plastics.

Photo banque d’images

I would also like to point out that they have all been emphasising the recyclability/recycling of their polymers for some years now.
It is clear that things are changing and that polymer manufacturers are looking for innovative solutions, whether they involve chemical or mechanical recycling.

On that note, what is your environmental policy?

Today it is at the heart of all our concerns and decisions. For example, we are giving considerable thought to the durability of our products. We are trying to develop products that will last even if they are used intensively.

An example of this is the hockey stick. A hockey stick usually lasts for half a season. We are working to develop a more durable or even repairable one. In the same vein, we offer a lifetime guarantee on our bicycle frames and have started thinking about expanding it to other items. Finally, we are also looking to reduce our packaging.

Photo banque d’images

Do recycled plastics also form part of this strategy?

If we can use recycled polymer, we do! It's one of our principles. We maintain a very close relationship with certain recyclers who offer us their recycled polymers. We analyse them and if we consider them reliable, we use them. That said, recycled polymers are not the only avenue for improvement, which can be seen when you analyse the life cycle of a plastic and composite product. As a general rule, 40% of a product’s ecological impact is considered to be linked to its materials, 40% to energy and 20% to the rest, including transport. We try to act on these three items in a global, but also specific way.

© Decathlon

What is your opinion of plant-based plastics?

Here again, it is very simple and pragmatic. We have nothing against them provided that their cultivation does not compete with food-producing agriculture. We were recently approached by an industrialist who has managed to extract a monomeric component from used frying oil. It is therefore a bio-plastic and an interesting avenue that we must now explore, including by conducting tests.

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