Shoe Recycling Guide: How to Recycle Sneakers, Sandals, and Other Shoes

Keep old shoes out of landfills with our expert tips.

So many shoes, so little time
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People are becoming more conscious about their shopping habits. They are buying quality goods and aiming to prolong the life of their items. Yet, even with extra care, every shoe will wear out at some point. The question is, what will you do with your old shoes?

While there are plenty of shoes made from upcycled and recycled materials, knowing how to keep them from becoming waste is crucial. In 2019, 24.3 billion pairs of shoes were produced, and most of them were or will be sent to the landfill. Reducing consumption will help reduce this number in years to come. Another action we can all take is recycling our shoes.

What Types of Shoes Can Be Recycled?

Generally, you can recycle any type of shoe. However, what you can and cannot recycle will be dependent on each service for recycling.

For example, Nike and similar programs only recycle athletic sneakers. Some brands may just recycle their own specific brand of shoes. Other programs, such as with TerraCycle, give more leeway in the type of shoes that can be recycled.

After knowing the types of shoes that can be recycled, you need to factor in the conditions of the product. Programs aiming to truly recycle the shoes will take them in any condition. Donation stations, on the other hand, will only accept gently used shoes that can be reused by someone else.

How to Recycle Your Shoes

UK - London - Recycling bins
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In the United Kingdom, you can take your old shoes to just about any recycling center. The same can't be said in the United States. It helps to recognize the different organizations dedicated to shoe recycling. Here are some ways to make sure your old shoes go to good use.

TerraCycle

TerraCycle has the most extensive recycling program. This privately-owned company can recycle many things that others would deem unrecyclable, including shoes.

There are two ways to recycle your shoes using TerraCycle. The first is through a National Recycling Solution Program. These are sponsored by brands that make them free for the consumer. The tricky part is that many do come with restrictions. For instance, the Teva Sandal Recycling Program will only recycle Teva brand sandals, and the Thousand Fell Recycling Program recycles only Thousand Fell sneakers.

If you are hoping to recycle a shoe outside of these terms, the second option may be of better use to you. Through TerraCycle's Zero Waste Box, you have more options in the type of product you recycle. The caveat is that you will have to purchase the box. A shoe and footwear box will cost between $129 for a small box and $274 for a large one.

Nike Grind

As part of their Move to Zero campaign, Nike also has a program for shoe recycling. They take materials not only from shoes at the end of their life but also from factory waste and defective unsellable shoes.

Although their program will take all brands, it is limited to athletic sneakers. This means no "sandals, dress shoes, boots, or shoes with metal (like cleats or spikes)". Nike has tried to make it easy to recycle shoes by putting drop boxes in their retail stores. You can use their website to find a participating store near you. Nike will then take those shoes and use them in a variety of ways through their Nike Grind program. Your old worn-out sneakers could end up as part of playgrounds, turf fields, or even a Lyft bike share station. They may also be used to make new sneakers such as Nike's Space Hippie or the Waffle Racer Crater.

Runners Roost

Runners Roost is a program that is currently only local to Colorado. They take old shoes and recycle them into tracks, playgrounds, and shoes for homeless communities or veterans. You can drop off shoes at any Runners Roost location.

Got Sneakers

Got Sneakers is a sneaker recycling organization that has the primary objective of sending shoes around the world to places where shoes aren't as accessible. Through sneaker drive fundraisers, people and organizations are paid for every shoe collected. While the aim is to receive gently used shoes, they will still send unusable ones to be recycled.

Other Ways to "Recycle" Shoes

While the concept of recycling comes down to making something new from an older product, the term "recycled" is tossed around liberally these days. For example, not every place that says it recycles shoes is necessarily making a new product. Instead, they might be reclaiming the shoe itself and putting it back into the economy to be reused.

If your shoes aren't completely worn out, here are some additional options for you.

Repair Your Shoes

Repairing your shoes isn't a go-to option for most people, especially today. While shoe repair is a dying industry, the cobblers that are still around are busier than ever. Investing in a good pair of shoes and simply having them repaired when needed can save you money in the long run. The Shoe Service Institute of America says a good pair of men's shoes can be resoled seven to 10 times and can last up to 30 years, while women's shoes can be resoled three to five times.

Donate

Check to see what kind of programs to donate your shoes are near you. Asics works with Give Back Box to put shoes and clothing back into the use cycle. Through this program, you simply fill up the shipping box that was used to ship the products you purchased with gently used apparel and shoes. After attaching the pre-paid shipping label, you can drop it off at the carrier named on the label. These items will be donated to people in need.

Soles4Souls is another donation program for gently used shoes. This nonprofit organization provides income opportunities through selling the shoes. One World Running is a similar program that donates running shoes to those in need within the United States and around the world. They also have a special program to provide running shoes for military recruits who can't afford them free of charge. Donated shoes that can't be reused through their program are recycled.

Resell

Donated clothing that ends up overseas has received plenty of criticism for the way it impacts local economies. Though not as much has been written about shoes, the donation model for shoes has mainly focused on one company. Yet, it wouldn't be a far leap to assume that shoes may have a similar impact as donated apparel. Finding a nonprofit that supports local communities will be a better option

You can even resell the shoes on your own. There are plenty of platforms available to resell gently used items. From Mercari to Poshmark to eBay and even a local consignment shop—you can whittle down your closet, reduce waste, and lessen your environmental impact.

Check Out ReCircled

ReCircled is focused on taking our linear economy and making it circular. Their aim: to put clothing and accessories back to use instead of putting them in a landfill.

If you're unsure if your shoes are still usable, this is a great place to send them. ReCircled will sort shoes of all types for you. Those that can be reused are sent to be cleaned and repaired and then resold; likewise, those that can't be repaired are sent to recycling partners to be broken down into raw materials.

The one downside is that ReCircled is another company that works primarily with brands. You can look up the specific brand of your shoe and see if they offer a recycling program. If not you could always petition for them to start one sitting ReCircled as an option for them to work with.

Upcycling and DIY Projects

Fresh herbs growing in repurposed old red boots
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Most of the recycling programs would be considered downcycling, yet that are ways that you can upcycle your shoes via a few DIY projects.

A popular upcycle idea is using old shoes as planters. Adding rocks or gravel to the bottom will help with drainage. Alternatively, holes could be drilled in the bottom of the shoe to allow the water to run out. Succulents are a favorite, but other plants can be used as well.

A Pinterest search will yield hundreds of ideas on how to repurpose and upcycle shoes. A makeover could have your shoes looking brand new or even like a completely different pair. You have the option to make objects such as jewelry racks or birdhouses with unwanted shoes. It is also possible to make purses, wallets, or journals from the leather on an old pair of boots.

Perhaps one day, every shoe will be biodegradable. Until then, these are the best options available to prevent waste.

View Article Sources
  1. Zhang, Zulin, et al. "The Present Situation of the Old Shoes Recycling and the Existing Old Shoes Treatment Method." IOP Conference Series: Materials Science and Engineering, vol. 382, no. 3, 2018., doi::10.1088/1757-899X/382/3/032055