How to Recycle Your Unwearable Tennis Shoes


Photo: Brian Siewiorek

You jog in them. Compete in them. Maybe even meet your friend for lunch in them. They add an extra bounce to your step and urge you to take the stairs instead of the elevator. When the last thing you want to do is wake up for that morning run, they are there for you.

They have a special place in your closet and your heart. They are your sneakers. But what happens once you’ve loved them to death?

Depending on the brand, your favorite running buddies are mostly made up of natural and synthetic rubbers and synthetic foam, which is primarily composed of polyurethane and ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA). The upper portion is usually mesh or natural or synthetic leather.

There are several recycling possibilities for the materials that make up your kicks, especially rubbers and foams. Both rubber and polyurethane can be reclaimed and reused, and manufacturing with reclaimed rubbers and foams is often more energy-efficient and much less expensive than using virgin material.

However, most recycled rubber and polyurethane comes from much larger sources than a pair of running shoes. So, trashed trainers often end up in landfills, but they are also making an appearance in more unlikely places: on athletic and playground surfaces with the help of Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe program.

The Reuse-A-Shoe program collects worn out athletic shoes and salvages materials to make Nike Grind, which is composed of nearly every part of an old running shoe: rubber from the outsole, foam from the midsole and fabric from the upper. Nike Grind also contains pre-consumer material including manufacturing scraps and shoes with manufacturing defects.

“The recycled shoes are given new life,” says Simon Lofts, director of Nike Inc. Sustainable Business & Innovation. “They are reborn into sports and playground surfaces around the world.”

These surfaces range from neighborhood playgrounds to professional athletic surfaces for the NFL and MLB.

So, how do your shoes make it from a Reuse-A-Shoe bin to a playground surface? The process is fairly simple.

First, take your run-down kicks to a Reuse-A-Shoe event or recycling location, says Lofts. Reuse-A-Shoe will recycle any brand of sneakers, but check the recycling guidelines before tossing your trainers into the bin.

No drop-off locations near you? Not to worry. You can mail shoes directly to a recycling location. To minimize excess shipping and packing material, collect some old sneaks from friends to throw in the box with your own shoes, or if your kicks are only slightly worn you can donate them to a local charity.

If your school, sports team or community organization is interested, they can even apply to host a Reuse-A-Shoe drive in your community, and Reuse-A-Shoe will provide marketing materials.

Once Reuse-A-Shoe collects a large number of shoes, they are shipped out to a processing center where they are sorted and cut into thirds to make Nike Grind Rubber, Foam and Fiber, Lofts says. To minimize carbon emissions from excess shipping, only full loads are transported to the processing location.

Nike Grind material is created and distributed to surfacing companies. In collaboration with Reuse-A-Shoe, these surfacing companies innovate sports surfaces that usually contain between 10 and 40 percent Nike Grind and are often better for impact-absorption than surfaces made from virgin material.

To get a picture of just how much is used, consider that a basketball or tennis court, made primarily from midsole foam, can contain 2,500 recycled shoes, while a running track made of outsole rubber can be made from up to 75,000 sneaks.

And you thought your shoes would never play another game again!

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Mary Mazzoni

Mary Mazzoni

Mary is a lifelong vegetarian and enjoys outdoor activities like hiking, biking and relaxing in the park. When she’s not outside, she’s probably watching baseball. She is a former assistant editor for Earth911.
Mary Mazzoni

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