Why do 300 million sneakers go to landfill every year?

Why do 300 million sneakers go to landfill every year?

Shoes are the most important, yet least sustainable item of running gear. How can we reduce this mountain of waste?
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It's almost impossible to imagine a mountain of 300 million sneakers, harder still to conceive of this huge quantity being dumped in landfill every year and the cycle repeated again and again. Contrast this with the fact that more than 600 million people in the world don't even own a pair of shoes.


Just like so much of the garbage that goes to landfill, sneakers don't decompose quickly. Whilst some materials like natural fabrics take 30-40 years, the toughest shock absorbing midsoles made from ethylene vinyl acetate will still be there in 1,000 years. Not to forget that for every pair of shoes being dumped, a new pair gets manufactured which itself generates CO2 along the way.


Some manufacturers are already making new shoes from recycled materials. Ranging from smaller specialist names like Nothing New and Worn Again, through serious challenger brands such as Allbirds to Nike, the giant of the industry, progress is being made. Yet it is a small dent in the sneaker mountain so far.


The good news is that there are recycling processes for used sneakers, although they have their challenges. Gently used shoes may be donated to needful runners in places where they can't get (or afford) new shoes - organisations like One World Running were started by US athletes who wanted to help their counterparts in Africa. Of course, the market is ever-present and so there's an industry shipping bulk quantities of pre-owned sneakers to countries where the sales margin can support a global second-hand supply chain. Whilst this prevents shoes going to landfill, it can have disruptive effects on local industries that are producing new footwear. Indeed, several East African countries are locked in a trade dispute with the US over this very issue. Organisations like Soles4Souls have a better model that helps people in these countries to set up their own micro-enterprise to renew and distribute used sneakers.


All of these approaches face similar processing challenges - what about 'singles' - shoes that have been separated from their pair? Or sneakers that are in very poor condition and cannot be re-used? Thankfully even these difficult cases don't need to end up in landfill, instead they can be processed by larger scale recycling organisations, like Terracycle, whose factories can break down the rubber, foam and plastic and recycle it into new products.


At the end of the day - the biggest challenge is to get consumers to understand the importance of recycling, and then to make it easy for them to donate their shoes. Humans are consistently lazy about these things after all - a recent survey conducted by ReRunnr found that almost 40% of runners just threw worn shoes into the trash or kept them in the closet for the same fate at a later time. That's why ReRunnr supplies members with the ReRunnr Bag to make it easy to recycle with their partners.


Sustainability is easy to support and difficult to enact - but it starts with simple steps, like re-using old shoes or making sure they get recycled properly.

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