What’s the most responsible way to dispose of shoes once they’re worn past the point of no return? I don’t want them to end up in a landfill, but I know I can’t just put them out on the curb with my cardboard and glass for recycling.
Perhaps your soles look like Swiss cheese or your high heels are so chewed up you’re telling people the dog got ahold of them. If it’s time to retire your loved-to-death footwear and you’re looking for responsible, sustainable ways to do so, there’s good news and bad news: You have options, but none of them are perfect.
Of the 24.2 billion pairs of shoes manufactured globally each year, experts say that most of them end up in a landfill or incinerator because there are simply too many shoes and not enough recycling solutions.
“When you are generating this much product, most of it is sent back to landfill,” says Dr. Sahadat Hossain, the director of the Solid Waste Institute for Sustainability at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Still, you’re right to resist the urge to toss shoes in the garbage. Once they’re kicking back in the dump, shoes can leach plasticizers, heavy metals and other toxic chemicals, says Hossain. They also take a literal eternity to break down. While natural materials decompose quickly (cotton takes about six months while leather requires 20 to 40 years), most of our shoes contain plastic-based components that last much, much longer.
“PVC and EVA are around 35% of all shoe materials, globally,” explains Hossain. “They can take as much as 1,000 years to decompose.” Of course, this is all theoretical, he adds. In modern landfills, which are lined in plastic and then sealed shut, our shoes sit intact “as long as you can imagine.”
WHEN IN DOUBT, DONATE
The simplest advice is to donate used shoes.
“Worn out to you doesn’t necessarily mean worn out to someone else,” says Tiffany Fuller, a deputy director of Reuse, Special Waste and Apartment Programs at the New York City Department of Sanitation.
In fact, according to the American Apparel and Footwear Association, we buy more than seven pairs of shoe per year, the equivalent of one new pair every seven weeks. Purchasing at this clip means that most of our shoes never truly get the chance to wear out. And reusing is better for the environment than recycling.
By donating, shoes will likely find their way to emerging nations (charities sell about 25% of what we donate locally and export the rest), some of which boast a thriving market for worn and even refurbished footwear.
“Some of them get washed and cleaned and, if need be, the heel is replaced,” explains Steven Bethell, founder of Bank & Vogue, a global used clothing broker. In Guatemala, there’s a sneaker cleaning plant, says Bethell, while in Pakistan men’s dress shoes get resoled in large recycling facilities. If you’re wondering if your shoes are fit to be reworn, Bethell’s advice echoes Fuller’s: “When in doubt, donate.”
There’s one major caveat with donating: Not all footwear will find a new home and developing countries are filled to the brim with our old stuff.