A Dead Sole: How To Recycle Shoes

by Nicola Temple on November 1, 2011

I love to run, which means I go through shoes. I don’t replace my shoes every 500 miles (or less) as recommended by retailers and manufacturers, so when I’m done with them…they are really DONE. They are truly beyond donation, bordering on hazardous waste in fact, so is it possible to recycle shoes?

The answer is yes… some.

Most shoe recycling programs are actually re-gifting the shoes. In other words, cleaning them up and passing them on to others who need them. If your shoes still have life in them this is a great thing to do with them, and I’ll point you in the direction of some great programs below.

However, if they aren’t donation-worthy, what are your options?

For athletic shoes, Nike has the Reuse-A-Shoe program, which recycles any athletic shoes that don’t contain metal (i.e. no cleats). They have collection points at over 300 locations across the US, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, including all Nike retail stores. Shoes collected in the US are transported to the recycling facility in Memphis, Tennessee, where the shoe is separated into the three major components, the rubber outsole, the foam inner, and the fiber upper.  They are then ground up into a product called Nike Grind. The rubber grind is used for track surfaces, playground surfacing and new Nike products. The foam grind is used to cushion the surfaces of outdoor basketball and tennis courts. The fiber grind is used as a cushioning foundation for indoor synthetic courts and wood courts. This video from Go Green Hawaii has an interview with a Nike representative talking about the different types of grind.

However, the majority of our shoes (the non-athletic kind) are a recycling nightmare as they have metal shafts, rubber soles, plastic bits and bobs, leather uppers, glues, foam inners…you name it. It’s labor intensive to take them apart and not all components can be recycled when you do. Here are some options for these shoes.

Repair them

I almost threw out my son’s runners the other day because the Velcro was gone. My husband luckily jumped to the rescue and spent an evening replacing the Velcro – good as new (almost).

Good shoes can often be re-soled, re-glued and re-stitched, so consider fixing them instead of tossing them.

Extend their life

recycle shoes

Unique planters are one way to give new purpose to old soles - a creative way to recycle shoes. CC image courtesy of jglazer75 on Flickr.

Generally my shoes go through a series of steps (pun intended). Once a shoe has outlived its original purpose, it may go on to become:

  • a trail shoe for dirty, muddy walks
  • a pair of gardening slip-ons
  • costume material in the tickle trunk

Repurpose them

There are some creative ways to repurpose shoes:

  • Dog chew toys – so long as your dog knows which shoes are chewable and which are off limits!
  • Plant pots
  • Bird houses
  • Bird feeders

Consider recyclable shoes for your next purchase

There are manufacturers out there making shoes that can be recycled.

Okabashi makes flip-flops in their Buford, Georgia factory using microplast that can be remolded. As they are plastic, you can either check with your local recycling centre to see whether they can handle this plastic, or send your shoes back to Okabashi where they will grind it up and incorporate it into their new shoes. Last year, Okabashi re-ground and re-introduced over 100,000lbs of scrap material, keeping it out of landfills.

Crocs can be recycled through their program Soles United. You can drop off your used crocs at a Crocs retailer or authorized donation centre, where they will be shipped off to be washed and ground up at the recycling facility. The ground up material will then be turned into new Soles United footwear, which are made up of 20% recycled material and can be identified by the Crocs recycle logo on the top. They’re then shipped out to organizations that put them on the feet of those who need them most.

Timberland makes men’s and women’s Earthkeepers footwear that can be sent back to Timberland for recycling.

El Naturalista makes some recyclable shoe products. Though they are eco-friendly in their approach to shoe making, not all their products are recyclable so check first. They explain how you can recycle the shoe yourself in the video below.

Recycle decent shoes by passing on the love

If your shoes are in decent condition and you can’t be bothered to sell them through a consignment shop or online, consider donating them to a good cause. Here are some to consider:

Options to recycle shoes are still pretty limited, but things are improving. If you can afford it, buying a well made shoe will mean you won’t have to replace it as often and it also increases the likelihood that it can be repaired. Also, consider disposal on your next shoe purchase and don’t be scared to ask the retailer about it. If people start asking, manufacturers will start responding.

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