Sneakers and athletic shoes are some of the most popular shoes in the world. Chances are you own at least one pair. And when they wear out, you have to decide on the best way to dispose of them. Properly disposing of your used sneakers will preserve scarce resources, protect our environment and help improve the lives of people around the world.
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to refer to both athletic shoes and sneakers as sneakers. They are both basically built the same way with the same materials. And it’s a heck of a lot easier to write.
Repair, clean, re-purpose
Sometimes all a pair of shoes needs is a little glue and a wash. I’ve found that replacing the insoles can make old shoes feel and perform like new. A little super glue can secure a lose sole. A quick Internet search can provide a lot of information on how to repair shoes. And there are still professionals that can repair your shoes if you don’t feel like doing it yourself. Finally, if your shoes can’t be repaired well enough to fulfill their original role (such as running), they can still be used for other tasks that are less demanding. I use old sneakers for outside work or situations I know they’re going to get wet and/or dirty. Having a pair (or two) of “play” sneakers will extend the life of your good sneakers substantially.
Be sure to check out my articles on how to clean your sneakers and athletic shoes and the environmental costs of sneakers and athletic shoes.
Donating your used sneakers is a great option if:
Your shoes still have some life in them (even if they can’t perform their original purpose well)
Your shoes don’t fit or feel right
Your shoes are out of style (I personally could care less about style, but this is important for many people apparently)
You have more shoes than any one person really needs
Donated shoes will be used for a variety of purposes. Some organizations will sell the shoes and use the money to fund their programs. Other organizations will give the shoes directly to disaster victims or people in poverty. A few organizations will give or sell the shoes to micro-businesses in developing countries. These people will in turn repair and/or sell the shoes in the local economy. This option provides people with income and skills and stimulates the local economy.
Access to affordable footwear (even used shoes) is a huge problem in all parts of the world (even in developed countries). Shoes help prevent many serious health conditions. Parasitic diseases (afflicting more than 1.4 billion people worldwide) can penetrate even the toughest foot but will not get through a shoe. Cracks in the skin can allow hookworms and threadworms to enter the body. Even more severe is the increased risk of injury and infection. Even the toughest human foot is no match for a sharp piece of glass or rusty metal. Puncture wounds, scrapes, burns and cuts are usually never treated (due to limited or no access to medical care) and often lead to ulcers, serious infections, amputations and even death. Now think about where most poor people have to walk to find food, sellable items or work (garbage dumps, open sewers, contaminated areas, construction sites, farms, etc.). Would you want to walk around these places barefoot? I know I’d rather have someone’s used shoes protecting my feet.
Lack of footwear can also be a barrier to education. Almost all schools require students to wear some kind of shoes. Even in developed countries, such as the U.S., there are children that don’t go to school because they don’t have shoes.
Finally, be considerate and wash your used sneakers before donating them if they are filthy. You might even decide to continue using them once the dirt is gone. And please don’t donate damp sneakers. They’ll get moldy, ruin everything they touch and just have to be discarded.
The organizations listed below are just a few doing good work around the world. Just do a few Internet searches (like “shoe donation” or insert the name of your city + “shoe donation” to find local options) to find more places you can donate your shoes to. Calling a couple of your local athletic shoe stores could also yield good results.
Goodwill Industries (www.goodwill.org) – Goodwill takes any type of shoe (sneaker or not) as long as it’s relatively clean and still usable. Obviously, shoes in better shape are preferred, as Goodwill wants to sell them as quickly and for as much as possible. Goodwill relies on retail sales for the bulk of their revenue, and your used shoes can help the organization continue to employ and train people with disabilities and other barriers to employment. All you need to do is find a location near you and drop off your shoes.
Soles4Souls (www.soles4souls.org) – Like Goodwill, Soles4Souls will take your gently used shoes (again, they don’t have to be sneakers). Unlike Goodwill, Soles4souls will also take shoes that are more worn out but still have some life in them. Soles4Souls will donate them to people in poverty to use directly or to support micro-business efforts. You can use their website to locate drop-off locations in your area or you can ship your shoes to their warehouse (you’ll have to pay for shipping costs though). They also take single shoes too!
Planet Aid (www.planetaid.org) – Planet Aid operates drop boxes all over the U.S. Clothing is collected along with shoes. The clothing and shoes are resold to exporters, who then sell the items at affordable prices in the developing world. Planet Aid uses these funds to support development projects such as health programs, schools, vocational training and food security programs. As long as your shoes still have some life in them, Planet Aid will take them. Just check their website to find a drop box near you.
Technically, sneakers are not recycled at this time. Worn shoes are not turned back into new shoes. Instead, they are ground up and used in non-shoe related products. This is the last stop for sneakers that are too badly worn or damaged to be used anymore. If there is no life left in your shoes, then reusing the material to make other products is a better option than throwing them out.
The largest “recycling” program at this time is Nike’s ReUSE-a-Shoe program (www.nikereuseashoe.com). Nike has turned more than 25 million pairs of unwanted shoes into sports surfaces since 1990. The post-shoe product called Nike Grind is used to replace virgin rubber and other materials in running tracks, basketball courts and many other sports surfaces. “Recycling” your sneakers keeps their valuable material (whose production required scarce resources and generated waste) in use and lessens the demand for the production of new material.
Donating your shoes to Nike is a relatively simple process. It’s easy to check their website to find a drop-off location near you. All U.S. Nike and Converse retail stores, some global Nike locations and some universities, community recycling centers and athletic clubs will take your shoes. Nike will take any brand of sneaker, not just Nike brand, and in any shape or condition. Sneakers with metal parts (such as eyelets or cleats) are not allowed though. Unfortunately, you can only bring in 10 pairs at any one time. If you don’t have 10 pairs, ask your friends and family for their extremely worn shoes.
You can always mail your shoes directly to the Nike recycling facility if the nearest drop-off location is too far away (figure your time and how much gas you’re going to have to burn to get there). It’s on you to pay for the shipping though.
On a final note, the resources used to ship your used shoes to a developing country or recycling center are small compared to what is needed to make and ship new shoes. By keeping your shoes “in play,” you are saving resources, preventing pollution and helping disadvantaged people. Not bad for a used pair of sneakers.