Instead of recycling shoes, try repairing them

Perry’s shoe repair shop in Nederland.

Shoes are a big source of waste. Not when we’re wearing them, but before and after they come and go from our feet. As part of our ongoing Zero Waste series, Sam Fuqua looks at the impact of shoes on the environment and ways to recycle and reuse them.

KGNU’s Follow the Waste series is made possible by a grant from Boulder County’s Zero Waste Funding Program.

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At the end of each school year, Columbine Elementary in North Boulder hosts its annual Mile Marathon. Fifth grader Jose summed up the event after running his one mile course around the neighborhood: “You get to run, you get some exercise, you can have fun.”

Just inside the school entrance are two very large boxes of used shoes—at least enough to fill a couple refrigerators. In conjunction with the run, families donate their old shoes, including some from Columbine graduate Ryan Miles

“Pretty sure we donated all my old shoes to here because other people need shoes and when I have shoes I don’t need they should go to the people who need them,” she said.

Ryan’s mom, Lisa Miles, is on the Columbine PTA. She coordinated the shoe drive. “Families look forward to it,” she said. “They plan, they save their shoes all school year. It’s been going on many years and every year they take the shoes to a different location. Last year, they went to Guatemala and Afghan refugees, but this year, they’re going to Honduras.”

Boulder-based nonprofit One World Running distributes the shoes. It was founded by Michael Sandrock, a former professional runner. He says the idea came to him after running a marathon in Africa in the mid-1980’s.

“One of the guys who beat me, his name was Isaac. He had those plastic blue sandals that they have…one of the straps was broken. He had bloody feet,” Sandrock said. “I ran with him for about 20 miles and he took off and I followed his bloody footsteps all the way to the finish. And when I got done it was amazing. He finished about an hour ahead of me, and he waited. He waited for me to finish. I was so touched.”

So Sandrock gave Isaac his shoes. “Turned out he was same size shoe as me. I was sponsored at the time. I gave him my pair of shoes and that’s how One World Running started.”

The nonprofit collects and washes the shoes and distributes them to kids and adults around the world as well as to shelters and Native American reservations here in the US. He doesn’t have a specific number but Sandrock estimates One World Running has distributed tens of thousands of pairs of used athletic shoes over almost four decades.

That’s a lot shoes. But it’s a tiny portion of the over 20 billion pairs made every year. Most of them are made in Asia. It’s a resource-intensive and toxic process, according to Elizabeth Cline. She teaches fashion policy and sustainability at Columbia University.

“They have a higher environmental impact in general than our clothing simply because they are made out of so many different kinds of materials,” she said. “Those materials can be toxic in their creation. Shoe factories can be a very harsh place to work because of those chemicals and those glues and adhesives.”

Cline has written two books on the topic, including “The Conscious Closet.” Much of her work focuses on the problems with what’s called “fast fashion”. That’s the mass production of clothing that is both cheap to make and to buy. And when fast fashion quickly wears out, it ends up in landfills. Same with shoes.

“A shoe breaking down in a landfill, all of the glues and chemicals and EBA foam and plastics that it’s made out of could potentially leach into the soil,” Cline said. “Or it could be that the shoe simply doesn’t break down. There are some shoe components that take hundreds if not a thousand plus years to break down in landfills.”

And, Cline says, shoes are hard to recycle. “We just don’t have the systems in place to recycle shoes,” she said. “It’s very, very challenging to recycle a shoe because it really is just a sandwich basically of all of these different materials, many of them where there aren’t even recycling solutions available for them yet.”

But many shoes can be repaired.

George Perry’s family has been fixing shoes in Boulder County since 1922, when his grandfather opened a shop in downtown Boulder. In 2017, when his landlord doubled the rent, the third generation cobbler moved a half hour drive west up Boulder Canyon to the small mountain town of Nederland. He repairs all kinds of shoes here, with the help of durable old machines, some of which date back to the 1950’s.

Perry says about half the shoes he repairs are dress shoes and the other half are hiking boots. Good shoes can be very expensive and Perry says his customers are willing to invest in repairs so they can keep wearing them.

“There’s a lot of good quality shoes people buy, you know, they could spend 300 to 500 on a pair of shoes,” he said. “So to put a hundred dollars into them is definitely well worth it.”

They also fix other stuff, like zippers and leather backpacks, and the customer base is big enough to support the three-person team at Perry’s Shoe’s—that’s George, his wife Becky and one employee. But there used to be seven people on staff. Perry says the decline in his business is connected to broader changes in consumer behavior and in the industry.

“It’s a throwaway society,” he said.  “Everything used to be stitched on, now pretty much everything is molded, glued on…so it’s just a different way of making shoes.”

If you can’t afford to buy and maintain more expensive shoes—and you want to avoid cheap footwear, sustainable fashion expert Elizabeth Cline recommends doing what she does—shop secondhand.

“That’s  how I personally afford better quality shoes and shoes that would absolutely be out of my budget or beyond reach,” Cline said.

Cline says there’s sometimes a misperception about the used shoe market.

“(It) sounds maybe unsanitary or a little gross,” she said. “But what’s kind of surprising is within the secondhand market, you’ll find things that someone bought, put the shoes on at home and they didn’t fit and they missed the return window. You can find a lot of shoes that are barely worn or even unworn.”

So whether it’s repairing, reselling or donating your old shoes, investing in and maintaining better quality shoes or shopping secondhand—it all starts with being more conscious about what we put on our feet.

 

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