Have your shoes seen better days? Don’t bin your old shoes. Instead, here’s how to recycle your worn-out shoes, boots and trainers to help minimise waste.

Buying ethically made shoes is tricky. Recycling your old shoes correctly can be even trickier. An enigma wrapped in a conundrum even.

What makes shoes so tricky to buy and recycle at the end of their life is that, unlike your standard cotton t-shirt that’s made entirely of cotton, shoes are made of a wide mix of different materials. The soles may be rubber or plastic. The footbed may be made of some type of latex. Uppers on your shoe, depending on your preference, may be leather, canvas, wool, or PU plastic. Then there are the metal or plastic eyelets or zips. And then there’s the stitching and laces. In short, there’s a lot going on in one pair of shoes.

It’s a recycler’s nightmare, as in order to recycle shoes properly, each component has to be separated. This is no easy job. What’s more, the amount of work involved to separate individual components can make it not particularly cost-effective to recycle old shoes.

When you consider that globally we buy 24.2 billion pairs of shoes a year, and around 90% of discarded shoes end up in landfill each year, we’re talking about a huge environmental problem. It’s no wonder that so many of our old shoes do end up landfill.  However, once in landfill our shoes can leach toxic chemicals into the ground and our groundwater.

How To Recycle Your Old Shoes, Boots & Trainers

Flatlay of shoes, with blue text box that reads how to recycle your old shoes and boots and trainers correctly.

So how do we stop our old shoes from leaving such a gigantic environmental footprint on the planet? Here are a few steps you can take to first prolong the life of your shoes, and then recycle them for the best environmental outcome.

Mend Your Old Shoes First

Before passing on your shoes for recycling, first, it would be worthwhile investigating whether your shoes could be mended. There are many specialist shoe repairers out there – from specialist Birkenstock repair companies to Dr Marten repairers. And then there are the high street cobblers that can work wonders on your old boots or shoes.

I had one pair of boots repaired three times, before the cobbler and I decided that the boots were eventually beyond salvageable. This extended their life by years. It’s amazing what miracles can be worked – even if you think your shoes are past the point of no return.

Sell or Donate Good Quality Shoes

If shoes you no longer want are still in good condition, then it is better to sell or donate good-quality shoes rather than recycling them. There are a host of sites where you can sell your preloved shoes and clothes online. Alternatively, charity shops will accept shoes in good resellable condition. Give them a little clean before passing them on, and the shoes you no longer want could be someone else’s treasure.

Recycle Your Shoes At Schuh

For shoes that are beyond the point of reselling or repair, then there are ways to recycle your shoes to help ensure they stay out of landfill.

Schuh’s Sell Your Soles scheme is one way to recycle your shoes. Simply take any old and worn shoes to your nearest Schuh store. For each pair you hand in for recycling, Schuh will give you a voucher for £5 off a new pair of full-priced shoes costing £25 or more.  

What’s especially great is that Schuh will accept any type of shoes and any make or brand for recycling. This is regardless of whether they were purchased in Schuh or not.

Schuh has partnered with Manchester-based Recyclatex to deliver its shoe recycling scheme. This trading organisation – formed by several textile reuse and recycling companies who are experts in collection, logistics and identifying value in used clothing and shoes – then pass on to shoe recyclers in the Global South. Here, Recyclatex says as much as 98% of all shoes can be recycled.

What’s more, for every tonne of old shoes collected for recycling, a donation is made by Recyclatex to the World Land Trust.  This charity works with local partners around the world to save and protect critically threatened habitats for wildlife.

Recycle Shoes At Clarks

High street shoe retailer Clarks runs a shoe recycling scheme called ShoeShare. Not all stores take part in ShoeShare, so Clarks encourages customers to call ahead or check in-store before bringing in your old shoes for donation.

Again, similar to Schuh, Clark’s scheme is run by Recyclatex. And similar to Schuh, Clark’s will accept any type of shoes, and any make or brand for recycling.

For every tonne of shoes received, a donation is made to Unicef. This money goes towards Unicef’s education programmes around the world.

Recycle Trainers At Nike

For recycling trainers, I think a better option is the Nike recycling scheme. Whilst Nike doesn’t have a great sustainability record, its in-house recycling system is a great model for other retailers.

Here, rather than sending shoes to the Global South, Nike turns old trainers into Nike Grind. Nike Grind incorporates scraps from manufacturing waste, unused materials, and shoes for recycling. These materials are ground up, and then the resultant material is then processed into new materials.

Nike says that it has been incorporating Nike Grind into products, retail spaces, workplace environments, athletic facilities, skateboards, space shuttles, and more. This helps to keep old trainers out of landfills, and in active use in some way or another for longer.

Do note that Nike accepts any brand of athletic sneakers or trainers for recycling, apart from any shoes with metal, such as cycling shoes with cleats or golf shoes with spikes. Nike only accepts trainers, and won’t accept any other type of shoe.

You can take your old trainers for recycling to participating Nike stores. It’s best to contact your local Nike store in advance, to make sure they can take your old trainers.

Shoe Banks

If you don’t live near any of these High St stores, then the only other option that I’ve found is the shoe banks that you often find in Council recycling centres and some supermarket car parks. What happens to the shoes then depends on who collects them. Some may end up in charity shops, but I suspect most end up exported abroad to the South for sorting and recycling.

Sharing The Load

Not all of these schemes are in any way perfect. The Global South is overrun with our old clothes and shoes, to the detriment of people’s health, the environment, and to traditional economies. And not every pair of shoes will get recycled. Hopefully, in the future, we will see more inhouse recycling schemes, like Nike’s, that will help to alleviate that unfair burden.

In the meantime, we can help. We can buy fewer shoes, and we can take good care of them so that our footwear leaves less of a footprint on both people and the planet. You can also encourage your favourite shoe retailers to look into shoe recycling schemes to help make shoe recycling easier for everyone.

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