As a runner, I have a permanent underlying guilt about the fact that I literally wear through my shoes in a relatively short amount of time. I run some tough trails, meaning that any trainers I own (trail shoes especially) undergo a fair amount of wear and tear, and usually break to the point of being unusable by 18 months in. At this point they are relegated to walking and gardening shoes, or thrown out.
Of the 24 billion pairs of shoes produced each year, 90% are likely to end up in landfill. This is both due to the over-production of (often poorly-made) shoes, and the lack of widespread recycling systems. However, once your shoes make it to landfill, they will likely take hundreds or thousands of years to break down due to their plastic composition (PVC or EPA makes up 35% of shoes globally), all the while releasing toxic chemicals into the surrounding area. In landfill, due to the anoxic conditions, they’re likely to never properly break down at all.
Across the globe, we each buy approximately 2.5 pairs of shoes a year, with most of those sales happening in just 10 major markets. The average American buys over 7 pairs a year. The vast majority (almost all) companies selling shoes do not offer end of life solutions for their products, instead relying on landfill and pushing up demand for further consumption. However, 52% of shoppers in the UK said they’d be more likely to buy from a company if it offers an end of life solution, e.g. recycling or fixing, with 60% being willing to pay more for shoes that had this option.
With trainers the problem is further exacerbated, with experts suggesting that trainers get replaced every 500 to 750km (300-500 miles), which equates to 4 to 6 months for someone who runs 20 miles a week. Even if you eke out every last step from your shoes, they are not designed to last beyond their useful life so may tear or break within the year, and it can be dangerous to run on totally worn-out shoes, increasing the risk of injury.
So what can we do with our old trainers, once worn out or no longer wanted?
The best option is to donate unwanted shoes that are still usable. If you forget cosmetics, the majority of shoes we throw out are still perfectly functional in their job to protect feet. Better quality shoes can be sold via Depop, and others donated to charity shops. For running shoes, The Running Charity donates activewear to young people who would otherwise be unable to afford them. You can send your unwanted clothes and shoes in to them to be given a new life. Similarly, ReRun Clothing is another organisation that accepts unwanted running clothes, which are sold. All the profits go back into the running community. You can also buy secondhand and up-cycled products here! Find your nearest donation point.
Repairing shoes should be far more common than it is, with cobblers fixing all sorts of damage and wear on shoes. However, this is little harder on trainers, due to the complex support required. Speak to your local cobbler to see what they can offer. Very few brands offer reconditioning services, but Vivo Barefoot has just launched ReVivo, a service that repairs and re-sells old and unwanted Vivo shoes, providing lower priced options with a significantly reduced environmental impact. The shoes are often as good as new, proving that reconditioning and repairing trainers is not as hard as previously assumed, setting a precedent for the rest of the industry. This small family-run brand is showing that if they can provide end of life solutions for shoes, large brands should undoubtedly be able to too.
The next best option for completely worn-out shoes is to recycle. Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe scheme has processed 33 million pairs of shoes since 1993 when it launched. These shoes get recycled into surfaces for playgrounds, running tracks and other clothes. See where you can drop of your shoes. The company I:CO provides recycling services for brands in the US, partnering with brands such as Asics and Columbia to collect unwanted shoes and clothing in return for vouchers. In the UK shoe recycling can sometimes be found near supermarket superstores and specialised recycling centres. Many specialist running shops around the UK also have their own shoe recycling programmes – pop into your local one and see if this is something they offer. Runner’s Need is providing recycling bins as part of their Recycle My Run scheme in stores up to the 31st Dec 2020, giving a £20 voucher in return for a pair of old trainers. Don’t forget to tie your shoes together to prevent pairs getting separated!
Although the above options are great, it’s worth remembering that it is impossible to be fully sustainable while simultaneously consuming at the rate we currently consume. Recycling and donating are great, but not if your’e only doing so in order to validate buying new shoes/clothes. As runners, we should be aware of the world around us, and the impact we have on it. Although running is a self-propelled sport, you can lessen or increase your impact based on the purchasing decisions you make.
However, the blame does not fall entirely on the consumer. There is a real dearth of beneficial end of life options for shoes globally, and brands have no real incentive to fix this. For an industry worth more than $200 billion in 2020, requesting further research into, and better options for a shoe’s end of life should not be too much to ask. While brands product ‘eco-friendly’ shoe ranges or styles here and there (e.g. Nike’s Space Hippie shoe, Adidas’ Ultraboost DNA Loop), the quantity is nowhere near enough to make even a dent on the non-sustainable plastic shoes created each year. If sustainable shoes and end of life options are available, why are we not insisting on them? It’s time to ask brands to do better.
What do you do with your old shoes once you’re done with them? Do you know of any brands changing the game when it comes to recycling trainers? If you enjoyed this article, please consider making a small contribution to the running of my blog.