According to World Footwear, there are more than 24.2 billion pairs of shoes manufactured each year. Sadly, many of these shoes end up in an incinerator, a dumpster or even hanging from trees, due to a lack of recycling options.
As a certified fitness instructor (and mad lover of shoes), I have worn different types of trainers, particularly running shoes, all my adult life.
Some shoes sat in my garage and generally lay around for months before discovering how to get rid of them in an environmentally friendly and satisfying manner.
I have been on a mission to learn as much as I can about recycling old running shoes.
(For buyers check out our take on shoes for older runners here.)
But that has led me down a rabbit hole of all things athletic footwear and the environment. It’s been interesting and it would be my pleasure to share a little of what I’ve learned.
In this guide, I will explain the following:
- Why recycling old running shoes is a great idea
- How and where to recycle running shoes
- How to be creative in recycling running shoes
- Materials and components in a running shoe
- Types of athletic shoes
- What running shoemakers are doing to mitigate environmental damage
- Companies that manufacture sustainable, eco-friendly athletic shoes
Table of Contents
Recycling Running Shoes – Why Bother?
The world is battling countless environmental issues, and you do not want to be part of the problem. Getting rid of your pair of running shoes by throwing them into the dumpster or open fields won’t make the world a better place.
Think about it this way: not everything that goes into the dumpster is trash. Some need just a little bit of polishing, repair, or refurbishing. You can bring your old running shoes back to life but in a different form.
Donate Your Old Running Shoes
Just because your running shoes seem worn out does not mean they are not helpful anymore. There are millions of people across the world who would appreciate having such a pair of shoes.
Additionally, there are countless charities and organizations that you may contact to find out if they accept running shoes as donations. Most of these organizations are not picky; therefore, you should expect positive feedback and instructions on where to donate the old shoes.
Setting Up Donation Bins
Chances are you are not the only one who has old athletic shoes sitting idly in the garage or under your bed. You’ll be surprised to discover just how many like-minded people there are at your running club or even your neighbors who are struggling to get rid of old running, walking or other sports shoes without wasting them.
Consider setting up a recycling bin in your neighborhood to encourage your neighbors to donate their worn-out athletic shoes. You may then present the collected shoes to a local or international charity.
You could also send them off to a place like the Reuse-a-Shoe program which was set up by Nike and has been going since the early 1990s.
Terracycle has a worldwide shoe recycling program that receives boxes of donated shoes which are broken down into their component parts and reused with other streams as appropriate material.
Creative Ways To Recycle Running Shoes
Recycling is fun and feels even better with a little bit of creativity. If you are unable to find a place to donate for some reason, these DIY projects come in handy.
Shoelaces can be helpful around the house. However, since shoes accumulate a lot of dirt and sweat, using shoelaces for indoor DIY projects wouldn’t be a great idea. You may use the laces outdoors to hang bird feeders, lights, or even plants.
Build a Shoe Garden
Clean and disinfect the shoes (or walking boots), and then add some soil and fertilizer onto their soles. You may plant some seeds or transfer a live plant into the new shoe-based flower vase.
Running shoes usually have tiny openings to keep the feet aerated and avoid the accumulation of sweat. These little holes are ideal for homemade flower vases; they allow excess moisture to escape.
The only disadvantage of this option is you may encounter messy floors. For best results, avoid pouring too much water during irrigation.
Let the Birds Decide
Take your creativity a notch higher by nailing your old running shoes to the bark of a tree or any other place frequented by birds. But before that, make sure the shoes are well cleaned, disinfected, and dried. Also, keep them warm and in good shape by sheltering them from the rain.
After nailing the pair of worn-out shoes onto the wall or bark of a tree, you can use them as bird feeders by adding seeds. Alternatively, you may leave them empty, and the birds will may, if you’re lucky, build a nest inside.
Are They Ready For The Recycling Process
Here’s a crazy idea – get your shoes mended. Yep, there are still cobblers around that fix shoes. And you can even find them online. SoleFresh, for example, has a service for sneakers and you can mail them to.
Don’t wait so long as the shoes need a complete refit then things become more expensive.
It might not be for the purist runner who may feel that the whole integrity of her gait is under threat if the beloved running shoes have been transformed.
Recycle Running Shoes – Summing Up
There are always more ideas when it comes to recycling sports shoes. The environmental benefits aside, there is a lot of satisfaction in repurposing an old pair of sneakers.
As an experienced and enthusiastic runner, I know that not every old running shoe is worth throwing into the dumpster.
But if they are really past it. Too far gone. Then they could be used for the DIY projects described above, e.g., bird feeders. If the shoes are not that badly off or are not the right size or model anymore, donating them is a nice first option.
Using Recycled Materials for Sports Shoes
A lot of the materials used in the manufacture of sports shoes harm the ecosystem. All manner of plastic is used in the soles, uppers, especially the midsole and even the eyelets.
Plastic materials, such as containers, straws, fishing nets and yes, running shoe components, pose a significant threat to aquatic life. In the past, there have been cases of sea turtles found with straws trapped inside their noses.
Most shoes made of recycled materials are durable, which means you’ll get the same or maybe more use from them as non-eco-friendly shoes.
Before we get on to the types of shoes available and what companies are currently doing to minimize the effect of their products on the environment, have you ever wondered what goes into making a sneaker?
And what is it that makes sports shoes hard to break down.
What Materials Go Into Athletic Shoes?
Many athletic shoes consist of ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA) and polyurethane, a form of plastic material that makes up the midsole. We will look more closely at the materials that make up an athletic shoe and where to find a more eco-friendly pair.
An athletic shoe consists of three major parts that make up the shoe’s frame; the upper shoe, midsole, and outsole. Other parts that complete an athletic shoe include the shoe lasting, sock liner, heel, collar, tongue, eyelets, and laces.
And normally all those components are melded, welded and glued together making the whole shoe difficult to disseminate and recycle.
The Shoe Upper
The shoe upper is the section that covers the top and sides of your foot and is mainly made of a breathable mesh to allow air circulation when wearing the shoes.
The toe box section, which secures your toes, is also part of the shoe upper. Toe box materials consist of strong fibers that can withstand pressure from your toes while exercising.
Simultaneously, the toe box is always lined with a soft fabric to cushion the toes and reduce friction between the toes and the shoe upper.
As you will find out later in this article, many shoe companies use unique materials, such as recycled plastic water bottles, to make breathable mesh for shoes.
The shoe upper may also have other elements such as leather for extra reinforcement.
The midsole is the mid-section of an athletic shoe that cushions the foot. Ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA) and polyurethane are the most preferred materials for making the midsole.
EVA has various properties which favor it’s use like flexability and long-lasting. It compresses and bounces back intact. EVA is cheap to make and easily adaptable in the manufacturing process.
A midsole that comprises polyurethane is denser and offers more support. Its grey color is conspicuous; the darker the color, the thicker the midsole.
Midsoles that have more ethyl vinyl acetate are white, lighter and rubber-like. They are among the best options for athletes looking for flexibility and comfort in athletic shoes. The midsole also contains other materials for comfort, such as encapsulated air and gel.
Suppose you are concerned about the plastic materials used to make an athletic shoe’s midsole.
In that case, you may be glad to discover that many more sports shoe companies are making these materials from recycled plastic, consequently contributing to environmental sustainability.
The outsole is the bottom part of the shoe, mainly made of blown rubber or carbon rubber. Carbon rubber is firmer and more durable than blown rubber. The latter is elastic and improves the traction of the feet while in motion.
The outsole of many athletic shoes combines these two types of rubbers. Manufacturers carefully incorporate the two materials; the carbon rubber covers areas prone to wear and tear, blending it seamlessly with the blown rubber to offer the best support, traction, and protection to the feet.
The lasting was one of the finales of the processes for shoemaking. It was the combining of the uppers to the sole shaped around a last.
A last being traditionally bespoke mirror shape of your foot pre-formed in wood. These days (recycled) plastic and not so much “bespoke”.
A lasting board is the layer between the midsole and the sock liner where the sole upper attaches to the outsole.
One generally used for athletic shoes, especially by Nike and Adidas is the Strobel board because of its firm yet elastic characteristics. It is another standardization of the whole process.
The Sock Liner
Also called the insole, the sock liner is a thin layer of foam resting on the lasting board. It cushions your feet and protects friction between your feet and the stitches on the Strobel board. Most athletic shoes have removable and replaceable sock liners.
The Heel Counter and Heel Collar
The part that supports the heels of your feet above the sole is known as the heel counter and is often made of spongy materials that cushion and cover the heels.
The heel collar is usually thicker than the rest of the shoe and offers support around your ankle. This part of an athletic shoe is mostly padded with soft materials to provide more comfort to your ankle.
The Shoe Tongue, Eyelets, and Laces
The shoe tongue is the tongue-like flap attached to the shoe upper from the top of the toe box rim. The flap sits between the eyelets where the shoelaces go. It protects the top part of your foot from friction with the laces. Additionally, the soft padding offers extra comfort to your foot.
The eyelets are the holes through which the shoelaces pass through. The laces secure and adjust the shoe on your foot until it feels comfortable. Depending on the design of the shoe, the shoe tongue may also have loops on the top part where the laces go through to secure the flap from slipping into the sides.
Different Types of Athletic Shoes
Different athletic activities require different types of shoes for comfort and better performance. When shopping for athletic shoes, you need to understand the characteristics to look for in such shoes.
These features vary depending on the purpose of the shoes. In another article we have detailed the differences and similarities between training shoes, runners, and walking shoes.
Here are some of the different types of athletic shoes:
Running shoes come in many shapes, sizes and functionality but fundamentally provided support and a degree of cushioning for the feet and the body from the pounding exerted.
Whether a casual jogger or a serious marathon runner an athlete needs to decide the right shoe for the level of intensity, runner’s weight and foot placement.
How environmentally friendly are the running shoes you choose? This may be another consideration you have which we’ll come on to later.
Here are categories of running shoes based on an athlete’s feet.
Neutral running shoes
This shoe type is best for people with little or no excessive rolling of the foot inwards or out, otherwise known as overpronation and under pronation or supination.
Pronation is the amount of roll of the foot from the heel to the forefoot. So over-pronation would be a tendency to being flat-footed and under pronation or supination would lead to more incidences of turning the ankle and doing damage to ligaments.
For more on pronation see our article on Training Shoes vs Running Shoes.
For under pronators, we believe neutral running shoes to be the best choice with advice and perhaps orthotics from your foot specialist.
Neutral running shoes have well-cushioned midsoles, mostly made of ethylene-vinyl acetate, to give support in a neutral way.
You can easily spot this shoe thanks to the single grey color of the midsole, which derives from polyurethane. Remember, the darker the color, the denser the midsole.
Barefoot running shoes
Barefoot running technique that promotes midfoot or forefoot strike has gained popularity in recent years. But before you ditch your regular running shoes, it is advisable to consult a professional trainer to assess how safe it is for you to use barefoot running shoes.
Barefoot shoes have minimal cushioning on the midsole structure. They also have no extra support when compared to the other types of running shoes. However, their outsole is strong enough to protect the feet from injuries and sharp objects.
These shoes follow the wearer’s walking pattern. They, therefore, offer support to the foot’s arch and have extra stability for shock absorption.
It must be said, I’m not personally a great fan of the barefoot running technique.
I’m quite a weighty runner and running any distance may put stress on my feet, ankles and body.
It’s only my opinion – I’m sure many runners have success with the method.
Stability running shoes
When you run, the arch of your feet relaxes to a certain degree and touches the ground to distribute the shock of the impact to your body evenly.
If most of your feet’ sole touches the ground during this impact, the condition is known as pronation. Despite being normal, the overarching affects the way athletes run.
Stability shoes support the arch so that they do not collapse excessively while running. You will notice that stability shoes have grey material (polyurethane) on the arch and heel with different densities. By now, you probably know that the grey color signifies the thickness of the material.
These are similar to stability shoes but are even less flexible.
The heel counters of motion control shoes have an extra stabilizer for maximum control, while the outsole comprises a heavier combination of carbon rubber and blown rubber.
Other Types of Athletic Shoes
Almost every sport and physical activity have a specific type of athletic shoes. For example, skating and ballet shoes are very different from ordinary sneakers and work best only for those sports.
There may be some crossover between sports activities – I used to wear my running shoes in the gym a lot – but more often than not it would be advisable to get the right footwear for the job.
Below we have chosen just some of the long list of athletic shoes based on the kind of sport.
Walking footwear is also popular as a boot. They don’t seem to get so much attention or technology as running or other sports shoes.
Walking shoes don’t need so much cushioning at the forefoot and apart from elite or distance walkers, there is less need for heel cushioning.
More cushioning means more weight, it somewhat depends on whether you want to be able to faster or longer.
Walking shoes are generally less flexible than runners. Because of the longer time generally spent walking, comfort is really important.
Walking shoes suit people with arthritis because of the arch support that helps the foot roll evenly while walking, hence relieving extra pressure on the foot.
Due to the unevenness of the hiking surfaces, these shoes have more cushion for comfort and more inbuilt stability.
Most of them also have a higher shoe upper to cover the ankles, provide added stability, and protect them from injuries.
There is also more attention paid to waterproof materials due to the nature of the activity. Discover more about hiking shores.
These are shoes designed for court games like basketball and tennis. The shoe upper is commonly made for soft leather to allow for natural movement.
Each niche sport is different but generally, there is less downward impact. The movement is as much lateral as it is up and down so there isn’t so much emphasis on heel cushioning.
Basketball shoes, though, have a higher shoe upper to give more support to the ankles during high jumps.
Cleats are special shoes for games like soccer, football, and baseball. They have spikes or studs on the outsole, usually made of hard plastic or steel, providing extra grip on the sport’s playing turf.
The uppers tend to be soft hugging material to allow for the natural movement of the foot.
But all types of footwear are candidates for either recycling in a responsible way or moving towards a manufacturing process that uses all biodegradable materials or plastic-based products components that can be repurposed endlessly.
Brands With Eco-friendly Sports Shoes
About 23 billion pairs of athletic shoes are produced each year from different manufacturers. Quite a number of manufacturers use recycled plastic which, you already know by now, make up a large portion of these shoes.
The plastic menace has always been a topic of discussion in sustainable development strategies by individuals, governments and world environmental organizations.
Instead of using newly manufactured plastic and other non-decomposing materials, they save the environment by collecting and reusing materials such as plastic.
Several shoemaking companies go even further and produce eco-friendly athletic shoes.
Examples of such companies include:
For me, the Nike Air Max was a must-have model of running shoe coming out in 1987 and was all about the big bubble of clear plastic in the heel.
There wasn’t much awareness in those days of the amount of plastic stuff clogging up the oceans.
But like others Nike are making attempts to reduce the amount of one-use plastic items.
Within the last decade, Nike recorded 6.4 billion recycled water bottles used for their shoes and clothes. The brand continues to innovate new sportswear that includes at least 75% of recycled materials such as plastic and leather.
Their latest eco-friendly production includes using recycled rubber to make the midsole and outsole of their shoes.
On the trail of innovation, Nike has intensified research on sustainability to support the circulation of production. For instance, the American company adopts circular design principles and guidelines by manufacturing shoes and apparel using recycled products that may be recycled again for reproduction.
Adidas, the largest sportswear manufacturer in Europe, partnered with Parley for the Oceans sneakers in 2015 and created a shoe-line made from yarn recycled from ocean plastic and fishing nets.
In 2020 alone, the partners manufactured a record 20 million pairs of shoes from recycled marine plastic, totaling four times the production since they launched the product in 2016.
That is four times the recycling rate since 2016, and the company projects to use 100% recycled plastics for their shoes by 2024. In 2017, Adidas launched a global race dubbed Run-For-The Oceans, whose goal is to end plastic waste worldwide.
The future of the company is a little uncertain. Once a part of Adidas (acquired in 2006), as of some time in 2021 they have been put on the market.
Which is a shame as they seem to have gone a long way in the almost impossible task of being 100% eco friendly.
Reebok shoes are predominantly ‘vegan.’ The company uses degradable products to manufacture their shoes.
Such products include pure cotton for their shoe upper and outsole made from corn. Interestingly, their insole uses castor bean oil to offer comfort and support to the feet.
Additionally, the company goes a step further to provide recycled packaging for their products.
Tread by Everlane
This brand uses recycled leather and plastic to create athletic shoes that best serve minimalistic athletes.
They’ve gone further than most to “make the world’s lowest-impact sneakers“.
Recycled plastic accounts for 94.2% of their outsoles, laces, and linings, while the shoe upper consists of clean recycled leather sourced from a gold standard tannery that maintains environmental protocols for leather.
Shoes components are cut down to a minimum. It’s more difficult to recycle loads of different forms of plastics and other materials that are glued together.
Made in Vietnam.
Not for serious sports enthusiasts but lovely designs and finish.
A relatively new brand in the market that embraces sustainability, Nothing New aims to educate people on the best sustainability practices and positively impact sustainable development.
As the name suggests, the brand uses 100% recycled products such as plastics, fishing nets, cork, and rubber for their production.
Staying true to its sustainability goals, Nothing New gives 20% discounts for clients who return their used sneakers. The company assesses the condition of the returned shoes, and, depending on their condition, they decide whether to recycle or donate them.
Made in China. Socks and shirts made in the USA.
Again, like Everlane these sneakers are very stylish, well made and comfortable but not for running.
On Running, a Swiss company has taken sustainability to another level and seems to be on the verge of doing what seemed extremely unlikely a few years ago, a high-performance running shoe that is 100% recyclable and biodegradable.
Their new running shoe is the Cyclon made from
magic beans, yes completely organic castor beans that can be easily broken down and reused to make another pair of shoes.
They have even scrutinized their plans to distribute the product. To minimize an already small carbon footprint, they intend to only ship the product when the demand for it in a particular area has reached a certain eco-friendly threshold.
Okay, so as a consumer you’ve done the right thing ethically and bought into this new breakthrough. But it doesn’t end there. To maintain a link with you, the product and the shoes’ future you send it back to the company and they send you a brand new pair of Cyclon running shoes.
You see, it’s a subscription model. This then allows On to easily deconstruct the 2 polyamides-based material from the returns and make new Cyclons to continuously replace the old ones. It’s a closed-loop supply.
As far as I can tell this project isn’t in full swing, or any swing at the time of writing although the actual product is due in the fall 2021.
I love the ethos behind this and hopefully, we’ll see more brands coming out with innovative ideas that people will adopt and it’ll become second nature.
This list mentions just a few companies that are now actively involved in environmental sustainability. Others like Allbirds, Converse Renew, Cariuma, and Greats are also making significant steps towards this goal.
And So To Conclude
To be part of the solution, it is advisable to buy brands that can deliver eco-friendly athletic shoes. Caring for the environment just as much as they do for our health.
Saving the planet from our own gradual but suffocating contamination is a collective responsibility that starts with us as individuals.
Besides, as a casual runner or an elite athlete, there is no better feeling than knowing that you are not only competing but also serving a good cause when you buy eco-friendly sports shoes.
Remember, such decisions, no matter how small and simple they may seem today, will hopefully become the norm and make the world a better place for generations to come.