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It probably won’t surprise you, a runner, a definite wearer of shoes, to learn that the shoe industry is massive (producing 24.2 billion pairs a year, massive). Also unsurprising is that with its size comes a monster amount of waste as consumers continue to buy and ditch pair after pair.
The life cycle (from material processing, manufacturing, logistics, and eventual waste) is estimated to create 30 pounds of carbon emissions for each pair of running shoes.
Running brands aren’t oblivious to the problem and seem to grasp that runners are caring more and more about the environment, but aren’t willing to compromise on the quality of their footwear. In fact, that’s where a lot of the dissonance comes into play. To truly reduce the carbon footprint of the sneaker industry, runners need to one day rely on fewer, yet more durable shoes.
But no shoe brand wants us to buy fewer shoes. Which means, it’s up to them to find another way. And this April, just in time for Earth Day, many brands are launching new (or beefing up old) footwear recycling and donating initiatives.
Here Are 6 Brands That Will Recycle Your Kicks (And Socks)
Currently, 85 percent of textiles are not recycled, with the average person throwing away 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles annually.
In general, recycling shoes is a complex process and depending on the materials in the shoe it might not be possible. “Footwear is difficult to recycle because most shoes are made using multiple, mixed materials which are often stitched or glued together,” says Shaye DiPasquale a publicist for the recycler TerraCycle.
“There is not a lot of physical recycling of footwear that goes on,” says Eric Stubin, president of Trans-Americas Textile Recycling. The majority of ‘recycled’ shoes and clothes are shipped places to be reused. Stubin’s company processes about 10 million pounds of post-consumer textile waste from clothing, shoes, and accessories every year.
Take polyurethane foam, a material researchers from Northwestern University only recently figured out how to upcycle. “Polyurethane foam waste has historically been landfilled and burned or down-cycled for use in carpeting,” said William Dichtel, who co-led the research. “Our latest work effectively removes air from polyurethane foams and remolds them into any shape. This could pave the way for industry to begin recycling polyurethane foam waste for many relevant applications.” Polyurethane, which is sometimes used in the midsole of shoes does not melt even in extreme heat. Previously, it could only be shredded or compressed in ways that make the material not durable enough for other uses.
In general, when clothing is recycled it tends to go to one of these four different end destinations:
- Reused and repurposed as secondhand clothing (45%)
- Recycled and converted into items like reclaimed wiping rags for industrial and residential use (30%)
- Recycled into post-consumer fiber for home insulation, carpet padding, and raw material for the automotive industry (20%)
- Landfills (5%)
Perhaps the most notable and lauded shoe recycling program is Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe, which is available at select Nike stores. Through the program any brand of athletic shoe is collected to be turned into a Nike Grind product—tracks, courts, walkways, and playground floors made from ground sneakers. Stubin considers the Nike Grind program to be the most “robust and viable program for footwear.”
Earlier this month, the sandal company Teva announced its partnership with TerraCycle through a program it’s calling TevaForever. For no additional cost, customers who sign up receive a pre-paid shipping label to send their worn sandals to TerraCycle. Their goal is to also turn the used sandals into running tracks, playgrounds, and more.
TerraCycle‘s footwear Zero Waste Box is an option that anyone can order and fill with shoes to be recycled. According to DiPasquale the shoes will either be manually or mechanically separated into fabrics, metals, fibers, organics, and plastics. The fabrics are reused, upcycled, or recycled. The metals are smelted for reuse elsewhere. Wood or paper fibers are recycled or composted. And the plastics are melted down and turned into pellets, flakes, or other usable formats to be molded into new products or packaging.
But what if you could buy a shoe with a promise that it will be recycled, rather than looking for a solution on the back end? On, the Swiss shoe company has recently launched its Cyclon shoe subscription which promises to be a closed-loop system. For a fee of $29.99 per month you are delivered the shoes, made of castor beans. When the shoes reach the end of their life, you let On know and they will send you a new pair along with everything you need to ship the old pair back to be recycled into new products.
Because of the concept, On was awarded the 2021 ISPO Product of the Year as well as a Sustainability Achievement award.
And on Earth Day, Salomon will begin selling its Index.01 shoe in the U.S., which is already available in Europe. Like On’s concept, it promises to be a circular life-cycle shoe. As long as consumers send it back, partners of Salomon will recycle the TPU and polyester into raw materials for use in other products. In Europe specifically, the TPU will be recycled into Salomon ski boots.
What about socks? An oft-forgotten item that is more than likely to end up in the landfill. Smartwool has just announced its new partnership with Material Return starting April 21. Like Nike Grind, this program involves collecting old socks (can be any brand or material, but must be clean) to be ground up and used in other products. This is your chance to get rid of those lonely single socks that, let’s be honest, won’t ever find their match. Find a donation center here.
4 Other Ways to Donate or Recycle Your Shoes
Donating your shoes so someone else can get use out of them is probably the best thing you can do with that old pair.
Stubin’s biggest piece of advice when donating your shoes: Don’t judge your shoes too harshly. “A good pair of shoes, even if a runner deems them no longer useful, can likely find a second life,” he says.
Even if the charity you donate to can’t re-sell the shoes to a consumer, they can still sell it to a recycler. “So if a Goodwill sells clothing to Trans-Americas, we pay them for that material. There’s a market price for that material,” says Stubin.
Programs like One World Running and Soles4Souls (a popular choice among running stores) collect and distribute shoes and other clothing to people who need them. To date the Soles4Souls program has found second use for over 56 million pairs of shoes. Find a donation center near you here.
Soles4Souls partners with a lot of other high profile donation programs. The North Face’s Clothes the Loop program, for example, will send your shoes to that recycling leader.
Also announced this month, Nike will soon start accepting lightly worn, good condition shoes into its refurbished program for resale in 15 authorized stores. You can also check with your local running store to see if they offer any sort of similar takeback program.
Extending the life of a garment by one year can reduce its carbon footprint by 25 percent, according to the Thredup fashion footprint calculator. “So footwear that lives on and finds a second life for two to three years, conceivably reduces the carbon,” says Stubin.
Recycling vs. trashing shoes is only a small fraction of the problem. Most of the carbon emissions related to running shoes happens in the manufacturing process. At the end of the day, the best thing that can be done is to buy less and make the products we do own last longer. But, as with every environmentally charged movement, we have to start somewhere and demand forward progress and innovation, while doing our part as individuals.