Like most things, shoes, especially athletic shoes, don’t last forever. Sometimes, you can donate the shoes — for instance, if a child outgrows them before wearing them out. Some damaged shoes can be repaired, but what do you do when they’re beyond repair? Tossing them in the garbage seems wrong, but you’re left wondering how to throw away old shoes.
Luckily, you can recycle most athletic shoes. While you can’t throw them in your curbside recycling can, a few companies offer programs that let you drop off or ship your old shoes and know they’ll be recycled into something new.
Can You Recycle Shoes?
You can recycle many types of shoes, especially athletic shoes.
Athletic shoes are made from materials that can easily be recycled into other items. They also, unfortunately, are sometimes made with materials that are hazardous to the environment. When you recycle your athletic shoes instead of sending them to landfills, the recycling center can deal with these materials properly instead of letting them leach into the air, soil, and water.
What Are Athletic Shoes Made Of?
The exact composition of your athletic shoes will depend on many factors, but especially the type of athletic shoe. Athletic shoes are often sold for specific activities and sports. For example, you wouldn’t wear soccer cleats to play basketball, and you wouldn’t wear court shoes to play soccer. Even though athletic shoes range in style and purpose, there are a few materials that manufacturers commonly use.
Ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA). You can often find EVA in cushioned athletic shoes. The EVA is the moldable foam that provides the cushion. EVA is a combination of ethylene, which comes from natural gas, and vinyl acetate, which comes from vinyl alcohol.
While the effects on humans are unknown, EVA contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that could negatively affect the environment. Recycling athletic shoes with EVA allows the foam to be used for something besides sitting in a landfill.
Polyurethane. Polyurethane often makes up the soles of athletic shoes, especially in the arches of shoes designed to offer stability. Polyurethane is a type of plastic, and several kinds of polyurethane can be used to make many everyday products like car parts, mattresses, and insulation.
Polyurethane has the same downsides as other types of plastics: it comes from natural gas, and it takes a long time to decompose. But because it can be used as insulation, it also helps save energy. Some, though not all, types of polyurethane can be recycled into something new. Researchers are also finding new ways to make polyurethane with recycled products.
Rubber. Natural rubber comes from latex trees, but the rubber in the soles of most athletic shoes is synthetic. Like plastic, synthetic rubber is made from fossil fuels, typically petroleum. The majority of rubber manufactured today is synthetic.
It’s estimated that for every ton of synthetic rubber produced, over 20 tons of waste are produced and discarded. This waste pollutes the air and water. Synthetic rubber also doesn’t decompose the way natural rubber does, and it can’t be burned. By recycling rubber, you can help reduce waste and pollution. Rubber can be recycled up to seven times!
Fabric. Athletic shoes use a variety of fabric types, such as mesh and leather. When you recycle your athletic shoes, this fabric goes on to make many more products.
How to Recycle Athletic Shoes
You can recycle athletic shoes, but you can’t throw them in with your single-sort recycling. Most recycling centers can’t take shoes. Instead, look for a charity or organization that specifically works toward recycling clothes and shoes:
- EcoSneakers: EcoSneakers is a Georgia-based foundation that accepts used athletic shoes and sneakers. They give gently used shoes to those who need them, and they recycle anything they can’t donate. You can drop off your used shoes at one of their many drop-off locations in Georgia, Florida, or Alabama or request a shipping label and mail them in.
- Nike: Many Nike and Converse stores will take shoes of any brand as part of their Move to Zero sustainability initiative. When you drop off your old shoes, Nike determines which they can donate and recycles the rest.
- Terracycle: Terracycle is a recycling company that lets you recycle many things your local facilities can’t take. Choose what product you want to recycle, and they’ll send you a box with a prepaid shipping label. Unlike the above options, Terracycle isn’t free.
To find other shoe recycling options, check to see if your local government offers a shoe recycling program, or visit Earth911.com and use their search tool to find shoe recycling centers near you.
What Can Be Made From Recycled Shoes?
The materials in athletic shoes can go on to create a range of items. Oftentimes, these materials are ground up, then formed into new things.
Foam. The foam in the soles of your athletic shoes has many possible uses. These include:
- Basketball courts
- Playground surface tiles
- Tennis courts
Rubber. Like foam, the rubber in your shoe soles can take on a new life. Recycled foam is used in:
- Baseball fields
- Basketball courts
- Football fields
- Soccer fields
- Track surfaces
- Rubber flooring
Fabric. Fabric can be reused in many ways, including as padding, clothing, and accessories.
Donating Versus Recycling
Not all shoes should go straight to recycling. You can donate gently used shoes or look at repair options for shoes with certain types of damage.
Donating shoes is a great option for shoes that are still wearable. If your local charity shop takes clothing, they’ll likely take shoes as well. You can also look for specific charities to donate to.
American Textile Recycling Service. This organization will take clothes, shoes, toys, and household textiles and distribute them to the people who need them most. Textiles they can’t use are turned into something else, like upholstery stuffing.
Soles4Souls. Soles4Souls is a nonprofit organization that takes gently used shoes of all types and sends them to people in need across the country. You can drop shoes off at one of their drop-off locations or request a free shipping label to ship them. Some DSW shoe stores have drop-off boxes for them as well, and you’ll earn 50 points if you’re a DSW VIP member.
If you’re struggling to find a place to donate near you, the Earth911 search tool also shows donation sites.