Guest Post: Can You Recycle Shoes?

There’s no doubt about it – we all need shoes.  But with people buying as many as 19 billion pairs of shoes every year worldwide, and with 300 million pairs going to landfills in the United States alone annually, you can imagine the amount of resulting waste and pollution!

So, if your shoes look like they have been on a grueling hiking expedition through a mudpit, you should consider disposing of them responsibly. How you deal with your worn-out shoes can contribute to a more sustainable world.

This article will explain how shoes are manufactured and more importantly, how they’re recycled. Shoes can, and should, be recycled whenever possible.

What Goes into a Shoe?

To grasp the impact your shoes have on the environment, we should start by breaking down what goes into making them. Each shoe part requires raw materials that are processed and then put together in factories. Shoes are made of leather, wood, plastics, or other petrochemical-based materials. They often have a rubber sole, and eyelets lined with metal, while their shoelaces can be cotton, jute, or leather.

How Much Do Shoes Contribute to Pollution and Landfills?

When you throw your shoes in the trash, they will most likely end up in a landfill. While most shoes can take up to 40 years to decompose, some soles will last as long as 1,000 years! With the manufacturing process of the average running shoe emitting 30 pounds of carbon dioxide, a simple multiplication by the number of pairs produced annually tells a grim tale.

Although the carbon dioxide produced from shoe manufacturing is significant, it may not be the most troubling aspect of footwear production. Shoe factories in developing parts of the world that follow poor practices often dump toxic chemicals into sewers and rivers. Furthermore, heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, and lead can be released when shoes are burned or are left to decompose in landfills with the runoff permeating the aquifer.

The Recycling Process

The more parts a shoe contains, the more challenging it is to take apart and recycle each component accordingly. Shoes are sorted and shredded so that the different materials can be separated. Then through a process called waste granulation, waste plastic is reduced in size and re-enters the manufacturing cycle to help produce other items, including shoes.

Many materials from recycled shoes are separated to be reused. For example, the rubber from the soles of the shoes may be used to produce baseball or football fields, and the foam used in the shoe may resurface tennis courts.

Why Recycling Shoes Helps Solve Environmental Problems

The most noticeable way in which recycling your shoes helps the environment is by reducing the volume of landfill waste. Having fewer shoes in landfills translates to fewer decomposing shoes creating harsh chemicals and resulting in contaminating drinking water.

Beyond the physical effects, a culture of shoe recycling helps bring environmentally friendly attitudes to the forefront. Shoes made from alternative or entirely recycled materials contribute to the growing awareness that is making its way into mainstream society. Even big corporations in the apparel and footwear space are starting to offer products made of recycled material, a trend that is changing the way people think about consumerism.

The more people recycle their shoes, the more footwear companies will be forced to adapt to a changing world where everyone from producer to consumer has the environment’s best interest at heart. Also, recycling your shoes will allow innovators in ecological shoe manufacturing to succeed in setting a new paradigm.

Doing Your Part

Choosing to give your patronage to manufacturers and retailers that create sustainable products in an ethical manner is vital for promoting eco-friendly practices. Footwear brands that ensure their operations are in compliance with environmental or chemical regulations through regular testing help pave the way for others to follow.

As a consumer, doing your research and making informed choices is a way to keep footwear companies honest. The more you know about pollution and the impacts of the items you buy, the bigger the change you can make by helping educate those around you.

Finally, and most importantly, make sure to recycle your shoes. This may sound daunting, but there are plenty of programs out there that make it easy. For example, Nike will accept any kind of athletic sneaker to be recycled. There are other programs, such as TerraCycle, that allow you to simply mail in your old shoes to be recycled. These programs will accept any type of shoe. Finally, GotSneakers will even pay you to recycle your old sneakers, making shoe recycling a win-win for you and the environment!

Lena Milton is a freelance writer covering sustainability, health and environmental science. She writes to help consumers understand the environmental and ethical challenges in everyday life so we can find viable solutions for both.

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