Work boots for the garden, sneakers for running, loafers for the office, flip flops for the beach... and so on. America loves shoes! According to the National Shoe Retailers Association, Americans spend a whopping $20 billion annually on footwear, with the average person owning 10 pairs of shoes. Footlocker alone operates over 4,000 stores across the country.
That's a lot of shoes making their way into our closets. As a runner, I'm guilty of buying three pairs of sneakers alone each year.
But footwear can have a huge impact on the environment, from manufacturing and production, to shipping, to shoes decomposing in landfills. Since shoes have so many components, leather, rubber, synthetic fabric or cotton, and adhesives, the process of recycling them is much more complicated than recycling textiles like cotton and other fabrics. But there are many individuals and companies out there that are making a go of it; and there are also a lot of ways to give a second life to worn out running shoes, out-grown loafers, scuffed flats and even discarded flip flops or sandals.
Just because shoes seem worn out to you doesn't mean that they won't be of use to others. There is a great need for shoes in developing countries where footwear is costly and people generally have to walk a lot for basic necessities -- to school, to work, to town, to get water and firewood. Many textile-recycling companies are working to bring shoes that may be thought of unusable in the U.S. to regions across Africa, South America and Asia where they are in demand. One company doing exactly that is the Chicago-based organization Share Your Soles that collects and sorts shoes and works with partners to ship shoes to many developing countries. See their work in action in this video.
Domestically, many footwear companies are working to provide consumers with new and convenient options for recycling or reusing shoes, or to make the production of footwear more environmentally friendly.
Perhaps the most well known program is Nike's ReUse a Shoe initiative. They collect used sneakers in their stores and recycle them into "Nike Grind" material, which is used to make track surfaces, playgrounds, rubber tiles and even new Nike products. They have recycled over 25 million pairs of shoes since they launched the program in 1990.
Timberland has been committed to greening the production of their iconic work boots and other shoes for many years. Their Earthkeeping program, which they describe as "a simple challenge and common commitment to be environmentally responsible," involves multiple green programs. Timberland uses " Green Rubber," a compound made using 42 percent recycled rubber for the soles of their shoes. They've also taken up initiatives like tree planting around the world to offset the negative impact that shoe production can have on the environment.
Convenient ways to recycle and reuse shoes are popping up in more and more retail stores across the country. Puma recently announced their "Bring Me Back" program that allows customers to recycle old shoes and clothes in their stores. And many textile-recycling companies, including USAgain, also offer drop boxes in convenient retail locations for recycling shoes and clothes.
There are also many companies, such as Simple Shoes that use environmentally friendly materials such as hemp and bamboo and water-based adhesives to construct their sneakers. A simple search on Zappos will even help you find a pair of environmentally friendly shoes for your wedding! Try it.
So the next time you go to trash a pair of shoes consider your options for keeping them in the use cycle. I know my shoes are not going to see the inside of a trashcan. Ever.