Fashion journalist Hannah Rochell is the creator of En Brogue, a digital space dedicated to her passion for flat shoes and sustainable style. She dives into the complexities of diposing of old shoes in the most eco-friendly manner.
Many of us would say that we have too many pairs of shoes; I definitely have too many pairs of shoes. As a former fashion editor and flat shoe blogger, I hold my hands up and say that I probably won’t need to buy another pair of shoes for many years, unless my feet get bigger all of a sudden (which I’ve read is actually a thing). My old shoe habit is not something I’m proud of, but it’s something that I want to address, because I want to right some wrongs with regard to the work I used to do writing about fashion and trends, and encouraging people to buy stuff. But mostly, I’d like to know the best thing to do as a responsible citizen when my shoes do finally wear out to avoid them ending up in landfill.
The problem with shoes and recycling them is that they are some of the most complex items you’ll find in your wardrobe. “Shoes can be made from up to 40 different component parts,” Tansy E Hoskins, the author of FOOT WORK tells me. “These parts are each made from a wide variety of materials (from leather to metal, to plastics, to rubber) and sourced from a variety of different suppliers with no regards to the end result.” This variety of materials, combined with the strong glues used to put them all together, makes it extremely difficult to separate the component parts in order to recycle them, and even if you could, it’s not like you can just throw them in with the rest of your household recycling. “Brands do not make shoes with any care at all for this final stage,” continues Hoskins, “because it has no profit motive for them – this has to change.”
In addition to this, we are making more pairs of shoes than ever before – 66.3 million per day, in fact, according to Hoskins’ book. Now that so many of us are aware of the effect our shopping has on the planet, and how important second-hand shopping is in the conversation, many of us are likely to have a few pairs in good condition languishing at the back of the wardrobe that could go to someone who really needs them.
Whether you want to donate or just avoid landfill, this article is designed to help you find the best next destination for your unwanted shoes, whatever condition they may be in.
The worst thing you can do is throw your shoes in the bin, particularly if there’s a way they could have a new life (read on for details), so if possible, keep and repair your shoes. A decent, well-made pair of shoes is designed to be spruced up and worn for years, especially classic traditional styles like leather brogues. Soles can be replaced, leather can be buffed and insoles refreshed. Many brands such as Grenson and Red Wing offer repair services on their own styles, and I’ve always found my friendly local high street cobbler to do a perfectly decent job. The Restory will collect from anywhere in the UK to give shoes a new lease of life, and offers other useful services including changing the colour of leather shoes.
Donate them to a new home
Unwanted shoes in good condition can be donated to charity shops or sold on resale sites. “We sell 700,000 pairs of shoes each year which would otherwise be sent to landfill,” says Jane Flannery, Regional Director at the British Heart Foundation. We don’t tend to wear shoes out to the same degree as we used to because we collectively own more pairs, but how worn out is too worn out to donate?
“The better the condition of the shoes, the more money we can raise,” continues Flannery. “In order to be put on sale we would need shoes to have plenty of wear left in the soles and to not be damaged or torn. We always appreciate if shoes have been given a gentle clean before being donated; whether that’s rinsing the bottom of trainers or giving scuffs a bit of a polish.” The British Heart Foundation also has an eBay store where it sells its high value items, including designer shoes. Most second-hand outlets agree that trainers sell particularly well.
This is a tricky one, because it’s not always clear where your shoes will end up if you pop them in one of the many textile street recycling bins, nor if you use an in-store recycling scheme, as many brands now have. Not only that, most ask for wearable shoes in pairs, and I’m more interested in what to do with shoes that aren’t in good condition.
I’ve done some digging, however, and there are a couple of schemes that look good. Nike’s GRIND initiative, as the name suggests, grinds up old trainers and makes the pellets into all sorts of useful things, such as track and field surfaces, while Schuh will collect any pair you have in store and sends them to Recyclatex, where 98% of materials can be reused (Schuh also donates to charity for every tonne collected). Of course, the cynic in me knows that they are also trying to get me to buy a new pair of shoes from them, but if you resist that temptation and just use the schemes, it’s all good.
If you do get to the point where you need a new pair of shoes, choosing wisely at the point of purchase will really help when they eventually wear out. And while there are many new shoe companies popping up using a circular model, making something truly good for the planet in shoe form is not an easy task because of the materials generally used (often plastic).
It’s something that Ed Temperley, the co-founder of WAES, seems to have mastered with his plastic-free 100% compostable sneakers. “We are really only scratching the surface of what we can produce,” he tells me. “Our process is to fuse the pre-plastic practices of shoe production with exciting new materials. Even a few years ago the reception might have been more dubious, but people are seeking positive solutions and here I hope we have one.”
So what’s the difference between biodegradable shoes and compostable, as WAES’s are? “This cuts to the heart of the vocabulary problem at the centre of any eco product. Almost any material will biodegrade, but it’s only compostable products which break down to a residue you’d want to have in your garden.” Every pair of WAES shoes comes with a note advising to do exactly that at the end of their life: just pop them on your compost heap.
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