Depending on their intended purpose, shoes are made from a variety of materials, many of which are often synthetic. From comfort and durability to unique decoration, these materials serve us well, helping us stand out from the crowd, perform better, or dance longer. Some synthetic materials also help ensure that our shoes last a long time.
But every pair of shoes eventually reaches the end of their life, when they become too tattered to resell or donate. When that time comes, some parts of shoes are far more worn than others. Which begs the question, can shoes be recycled?
Not all shoes can be fully recycled since they often contain plastic, polyester or polythene, none of which are completely recyclable – and again time has yet to tell us if they even biodegrade.
But the good news is that many of the components of shoes can be individually recycled, and there are programs out there doing just that. Many shoe manufacturing companies are now functioning to recycle and reuse the materials taken from worn-out shoes as it lessens the chances of them completely ending up in landfills.
What Are Shoes Usually Made Of?
The most basic components of a shoe are plastic, cow leather, synthetic leather (Polyurethane), synthetic rubber, fabric, and Polyurethane foam. The mix of materials varies greatly from shoe to shoe depending upon their design and purpose.
Man-made textiles like nylon and polyester are more commonly used due to their diverse patterns, colors and textures. Running and sports shoes usually use a higher quantity of Polyurethane leather for its wide array of colors, textures and patterns easy application on various surfaces.
Two types of foam are used to make shoes, open-cell and closed-cell, and these types have different uses. Open-cell foam is mainly used for crafting the uppers of shoes, and closed-cell foam is used in midsoles that are responsible for extra support and guard between upper and outer soles.
Which Of These Materials Are Recyclable?
Each material used to make shoes has different consistencies and properties. Most of them are likely not fully biodegradable or recyclable. But nowadays, the environmental sustainability programs initiated by many manufacturers allow them to recycle as many elements as possible.
Plastic can be recycled into polyester by crushing it first and then twisting it like yarn to form a string. It is then converted into fiber and eventually a fabric called polyester. Even though it is still not completely biodegradable, recycling plastic in this way extends its usable life and keeps it from the landfill a while longer.
Another component of shoes that is recyclable is rubber. Rubber is easily recycled for use in different products like buckets, making roads and playgrounds, and – you guessed it – shoes. Less cost and industrial effort are required to recycle rubber as compared to its initial production.
Nylon is yet another material used to manufacture shoes that can also be recycled fairly easily. But, unlike rubber, it’s more expensive to recycle nylon than to produce it anew.
Currently, recycled nylon is used in various products around the world, like sunglasses, backpacks, clothes, skateboards, and Econyl threads.
Leather can be recycled in many ways before being thrown in landfills. Untanned leather takes up to 50 years for decomposition, and tanned leather can take a few hundred years
Some types of foam are recyclable, including Polyurethane foam, which can be recycled for use in things like insulation and packing materials.
What Is The Process Of Recycling Shoes?
A comprehensive shoe-recycling program was developed by the UK’s Loughborough University in 2013. Here is an overview of the steps they use in their process for recycling shoes:
1. Shoes are Sorted by Type
The recycling process began with the first of a few categorizations, with shoes being separated based on their form, like sneakers, trainers, etc.
2. Metallic Parts are Removed
Any metallic parts such as eyelets, hooks, or buckles are removed.
3. Shoes are Ground into Scraps
After metal is removed from the shoes they are mechanically ground and shredded into tiny scraps.
4. Scraps are Separated by Material
The fragments produced from the shredding phase are then separated based on their materials by going through one of three sorting methods: cyclonic separation, zigzag separation, or separation via vibrating table. Each method basically separates the heavier components from the lighter.
Once the sorting process is complete, the result is that the scraps of shoe material are sorted into one of four categories: leather, foam, rubber and other/mixed-materials.
5. Sorted Materials are Ready for Reuse
The individual materials are now ready to be used in all kinds of new products and applications. Nike Grind is a great example. They collect unusable, run-down and defective shoes to transform into scrap material, which they reprocess along with leftover raw material to create new shoes, clothing items, running tracks, playgrounds, basketball courts, and much more.
Can Shoes Be Recycled In Your Curbside Bin?
Shoes are not curbside recyclable as the majority of municipal transfer or sorting stations in the U.S. don’t have the specialized equipment needed to breakdown shoes and sort their individual components.
Programs That Accept Shoes For Recycling
1. Reuse-A-Shoe by Nike
Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe program is part of Nike Grind, which gives new life to old athletic shoes by recycling the components into new materials. You can turn in your worn-out sneakers from any brand to be recycled (but no sports shoes with metal cleats or spikes). Participating in Nike’s shoe recycling program is easy if you live in America or Europe; you can either drop off your old shoes at a Nike retail store or mail them in.
Nike Recycling Center c/o Reuse-a-Shoe
199 Pearson Parkway
Lebanon, IN 46052
Teva has partnered with TerraCycle to offer TevaForever, a recycling program specifically for worn out Teva sandals. The shoes they collect are cleaned and then melted into hard plastic pellets that can be put to a range of uses.
LoadUp is a recycling pickup service that will come to your door to pick up goods that can’t typically be recycled curbside. They’ll pick up your shoes and send them to recycling or donation centers, depending on their condition.