Let's face it: many of us absolutely adore shoes. So much so that no matter what kind of shoe it is or what brand it comes from, we can accumulate a humongous amount of them in our closets. Heels, boots, flats, sneakers, slip on's; you name it, there's a pair for every situation!
However, sooner or later we reach a moment of clarity in our lives where we realize that we may have too many shoes and that some of them are on their last leg (pun intended!). That's when we say to ourselves "hey, it's time to get rid of those 2012 running shoes, even the sole is peeling off!" and we couldn't be more right, but... How do we get rid of them in an eco-friendly way?
This is where a whole new eco-dilemma arises — while some garments can be reused as dishcloths or other useful things, shoes aren't as lucky. I mean, there's not much that can be done with footwear once we decide to stop using them... Right? Well... Turns out the old shoes sitting in your closet may not be as useless as you think!
Just resist the urge to kick those sneakers to the trash can, sending them off to sit in a landfill for 25-40+ years. Instead, let's see what we can do as eco-conscious people to dispose of them in an efficient, responsible and, most importantly, fun way! Believe me, after reading this post I'm sure you'll know what to do with those old, beat-up shoes.
What do I do with old shoes I don't want?
Picture this: you are cleaning out your closet, sitting on the floor taking out pairs and pairs of shoes that you didn't even know were still there. Suddenly, you realize that in your hands there's a heel that isn't true to your current shoe size, a faux leather boot that you don't like anymore and a really, really old Converse whose sole plainly looks like Swiss cheese. What can you do in that situation?
I'll say it again: I know that you may have the urge to just throw them in the trash and that's it, but hang in there! If you want to take care of the environment, that's not the best way to dispose of them. There are many ways to do it responsibly, but I don't want to spoil you just yet. First, let's talk about the main reason why you shouldn't throw your footwear in the trash — the environmental impact of old shoe waste.
How does shoe waste impact the environment?
Right off the bat, the footwear industry as a whole has some pretty dirty practices.
During its manufacturing, a regular pair of running shoes generates about 13.60 kilograms of CO₂ emissions, releases nasty chemicals found in materials such as glues, rubbers, plastic and leather into the environment and, of course, pollutes waterways with microplastics. Oh, and I almost skip a teeny-tiny detail — most of the world's footwear is manufactured in countries with few pro-worker laws, which means that workers' rights can be ignored and workplace safety in factories is virtually non-existent.
If this already shocks you, buckle up, because I've only mentioned the environmental impact of the manufacturing process, the dark pre-consumer side of the footwear industry. Now let's talk about what concerns us most in this post: the post-consumer impact, what happens in the landfills once you throw away your old shoes:
As you may already know, the majority of shoes are predominately made from plastic or plastic-like materials such as polyester, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) and thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU). All these petroleum-derived plastics are one of the environment’s worst enemies and with good reason. They simply don’t biodegrade.
A regular pair of shoes can sit in a landfill for 25-40+ years before they even start to kind of “degrade”, but honestly, most of them don’t degrade even if 80+ years go by. Its remains will pollute the soil, air and even bodies of water, harming everything that lives in it.
Let's do some quick math just to give you an idea of the environmental impact of shoe waste: the average Canadian tosses away approximately 37 kilograms of textiles per year, and if we multiply that figure by the total population of Canada, we get a whopping 1,390,830,000 kilograms of textiles per year — shoes included! If Americans throw away at least 300 million pairs of shoes each year (according to the U.S. Department of the Interior), we Canadians sure aren't that far off that number. We are filling landfills to the brim with shoe waste!
And you know what the worst part is? Even though it's pretty clear the environment takes a hit from this wastefulness, most footwear brands don't seem to take this into account. There are no programs or newsletters from these brands to their customers to teach them what to do with their old sneakers in a responsible way, let alone to extend their lifespan as much as possible.
In today's consumerist world this is no surprise, but heck, I believe a change is needed. And if most shoe brands don't want to take the first step, let's do it ourselves from the comfort of our home! It's time to learn about different methods to dispose of our old shoes in an eco-responsible way, starting with the all-time classic: recycling.
Not-so-fun fact: According to the sustainability consulting group Quantis, the footwear industry is responsible for at least 1.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This may seem as a small percentage, but given that air travel is responsible for 2.5% of all emissions, it’s actually a significant amount!
Can I recycle old shoes?
If you have an old pair of kicks that are ready to kick the bucket, the first thing that probably comes to your mind is to recycle them. But is it possible to actually do it?
Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that yes, old shoes can be recycled through some special programs, and the bad news is that while they can be recycled in special programs, they can't always be recycled in every local recycling program. That's because when shoes are recycled, a few things happen.
The soles of shoes usually have some sort of rubber material in them that is still usable after the shoe has been worn out. This means it can be melted down and reused to make new products, but usually, shoes are a difficult item to recycle. Besides rubber, the shoes we wear on a daily basis tend to be made out of a mix of the different plastics I mentioned above. While some of them are recyclable by themselves, they do not recycle well when combined because some others aren't recyclable (such as PVC) and cannot be separated from each other during collection or after processing.
But don't let this discourage you, as I mentioned earlier, there are some special programs like the one sponsored by Terracycle where you can recycle your old shoes. If you want to learn about these and other programs, keep scrolling!
Can you put shoes in the recycling bin
Dropping your shoes in the recycle bin is only a good idea if you have double-checked two things. One, that the shoes were manufactured from a single material, and two, that your local recycling facility accepts them.
If your shoes are made from only a single recyclable plastic or a natural material like cotton, hemp or wool, you're good to go. This takes the messy mix of multiple materials out of the equation and makes it more likely that your local recycling facility will accept them. However, I'll say it again: verify if they will accept them! Give them a call or stop by their headquarters, check all boxes before you put them in your recycling bin.
Is it worth donating old shoes?
Donating shoes is 100% worth it! Your shoes will go to someone who will need them the most and, trust me, you'll feel great about it. You probably already thought about doing this since not every shoe you have in your closet has been terribly worn out, there are some that just need a good wash and that's about it. That's when they become someone else's treasure!
"But where can I donate my shoes?" you may ask. Good news for shoe lovers: there are many places across Canada that accept shoe donations!
One of them is Shoe Bank Canada, a non-profit social enterprise that has a clear mission: to ensure that every Canadian has access to a decent pair of shoes.
The best thing about them is that they promote two types of donations: the standard ones, in which you simply collect the shoes you have at home and take them to one of their drop-off locations, and other ones they call "shoe drive". If you want to host a shoe drive, it basically consists of asking your community to collect gently worn, used and new of all types and sizes, gathering them, and delivering or shipping them to one of the Shoe Bank Canada drop-off locations. Just like they state on their website, it's a fun and simple way to engage your team or organization to give back and make a difference.
Another excellent non-profit for donating shoes is Soles4Souls, one that is so transparent that you can even meet their team and find out how they manage their finances by just clicking on their website!
Like Shoe Bank Canada, S4S accepts all styles and sizes of new or gently worn shoes and also features both standard donations and shoe drives. Just find one of their drop-off locations based on where you live, and let your old shoes rest there before they go to a better place. Also, if you want to get a rough idea of how much you can help someone by donating your shoes, at S4S website they have a feature where you can calculate your positive impact. How cool is that?
Last but not least, I cannot leave out the OG's Goodwill and The Salvation Army. If you don't have another donation center or shelter nearby, you can always go to one of these two places to see if they will accept your shoes. Oh, and you can also go to your local thrift shop, maybe you can make a few bucks off of that pair of heels you only wore to prom.
P.S: When donating shoes please make sure they're in good condition — no cracks, tears, or super worn-out soles. Besides the fact that every donation center asks for this requirement, let's be honest: no one would like to wear shoes with holes everywhere or with peeling soles, so make sure they are in good condition. Plus, once you donate shoes, consider donating clothes and other items too. It never hurts to help others!
How to Recycle Old Shoes: Running Shoes, Sneakers, Boots, Heels
Let's say you have a pair of old, beat-up tennis shoes and you don't know what to do with them anymore because they are too damaged to be of any use to someone else. Remember when I said there are special programs for recycling shoes? Well, it's time to discuss them!
Let's start with Terracycle, a social enterprise focused on eliminating landfill waste. How do they do it? Well, through their Zero Waste Box™ recycling program. (You know how much we love zero waste).
They have several boxes for recycling products, but the one we're interested in right now is the Shoes and Footwear Zero Waste Box™. Once you purchase it from their website, this box will allow you to put in any type of shoe you want, from running shoes and sneakers to boots and heels. The only things they don't accept are in-line skates or ski boots, but other than that, all types of shoes are welcome.
Then, send the box back to Terracycle with the prepaid return label on your system, and that's it! They will recycle them for you. As easy as ABC.
If you have a pair of Nike shoes at home, this will make you proud to own them. Although they still have a long way to go in regards to sustainability, Nike is one of the few mainstream shoe brands that have eco-friendly programs, one of which is Reuse-A-Shoe.
This program is focused on recycling shoes of any brand, not just Nike. The process consists in collecting shoes from consumers that they previously dropped in one of their Reuse-A-Shoe bins, and then recycling them into Nike Grind, a material that can be used to make performance products, playgrounds or running tracks for instance.
However, keep in mind that even though Nike's Reuse-A-Shoe currently accepts any brand of athletic sneakers, they can’t recycle boots, sandals or any shoe with spikes and studs. Still, it’s a pretty good choice if you have a Nike store nearby! [As of right now, this program is not in effect in Canada or the USA, Nike is baling COVID, will need to keep an eye out on this[.
But what if you have a creative soul and want to give your old shoes a new purpose? Well, that's where reusing them comes in.
How to Reuse Old Shoes
One word: upcycling. If you're like me and love to revamp things, upcycling is your way to go. Just give your chucks a new pair of laces, decorate your worn Vans with fabric paint, or even venture to mend the hole in your slippers — get creative!
You can also try to turn shoes you no longer want to wear into something completely new. For example, if your shoes are too worn down for mending and decoration, just put soil in them and add any plant you'd like. If you've ever watched Wall-E, seeing your little plant inside a boot will remind you of that great movie.
If you have a lot of leather shoes or boots, another DIY project you can do is stitched pillows or even a traveller's journal/sketchbook, but as I always say, upcycling doesn't have to be labour-intensive. You can simply fill closed shoes with sand to turn them into unique door stops or hang work boots in trees so that birds can have a new home. You know what they say, the most sustainable thing you can do is make the most out of what you’ve already got!
When should you throw away a pair of shoes?
Ok so, your shoes are completely destroyed and you've had them for so long that they look like mummies of their former selves... What can you do? If neither donating, recycling nor upcycle is an option, then I'm afraid it may be time to throw away those old shoes.
However, the only instance in which you should throw them away is if they are rotten inside with a foul smell if they have irreparable damage because your dog thought it was a chew toy, or something similar. In most cases, you can always save an old shoe from ending up in a landfill, but if it meets those conditions, it's a dead giveaway to throw in the towel.
How do you dispose of old pair of shoes?
If your shoes are beyond saving, one way to dispose of them is to avoid the common three-bin (trash, recycling, compost) residential waste collection, and simply aim for the trash. I know, it's hard for me to even write this.
If you live in Calgary, you may be able to drop them off at one of the city's Throw 'N' Go bins, but I advise you to first assess whether they will accept them or not. No matter how hard we try, there are times when there's not much that can be done, and that's okay. The important thing is that we first try as many eco-alternatives as possible!
Bonus tip: To prevent your shoes from reaching the maximum state of decomposition, consider taking care of them as much as possible. Store them in a well-ventilated place, dry them thoroughly if they got wet, wash them as soon as possible if you soaked them in a puddle of dirty water, clean them with the right products for each material, don't leave them sitting in the sun for days, and if they start to smell a bit bad, put an unused black tea bag in each shoe and leave them there for a few days. Believe me, giving a little love to your shoes is more than enough.
How often should you replace everyday shoes?
The answer to this question lies in your shoes. Different shoes have different lifespans, so it depends on the model and material of your shoes as well as how often you wear them.
Some people say that shoes have to be replaced every 500 to 600 kilometres, even though they may not seem to be worn out. However, I'm not so sure about that. A typical pair of leather dress shoes will last about five years if properly maintained. Shoes with rubber soles usually last around three years. And if shoes are kept in a dry location and fixed before they become "uncomfortable or painful," then shoes can last up to ten years.
The most important element of a good shoe is stability, and if your shoes no longer provide stability nor comfort, you may even injure yourself. So long story short, the general rule of thumb is that if your shoes start causing any pain or discomfort before you've had them for one year or if you fixed them and they start causing pain again, it's probably time to replace them.
When it comes to disposing of your old shoes get creative!
Your shoes are like an old friend. You know, the ones that you can always rely on to be there for you no matter what happens. But shoes don't last forever, and you don't want to wear shoes that are falling apart. So, what do you do?
In the old days, old shoes were often thrown out with the trash. But things have changed nowadays, shoe waste's negative footprint on the environment can't be ignored and many people are finding new ways to dispose of shoes in a responsible manner.
By recycling, reusing and donating our shoes we are being responsible for the environment, and although we cannot change the mindset of each and every person in the world, we can change our own. Also, and I can't stress this enough, being environmentally responsible does not necessarily imply laborious and difficult tasks, but rather fun and creativity. I mean, c'mon, upcycling is awesome! No wonder it's the favourite alternative of many eco journalists when it comes to giving a new life to old items — myself included!
P.S: Education is also a powerful tool in navigating change, so share this post with that friend who refuses to let go of those shoes that are on their last legs! Who knows, maybe the next time you go to their house you'll see their old Chelsea boots turned into a cute vase.
Finally, lots of brands are taking a step in the right direction by using more eco-friendly fabrics and materials. You can read more about sustainable sneakers and ethical sandals right here on The Eco Hub.
What do you do with your old shoes?
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