About three miles into my run, I felt the searing pain of blisters burning through the soles of my feet.
Blisters are always the first sign that it’s time to turn in my tired old running shoes and invest in a shiny new pair.
The need for new shoes is never a surprise to a regular runner. The average pair of running shoes can faithfully last anywhere from 200 to 600 miles, though most shoes max out around 400. For an intense athlete, such as an ultra marathon runner, this means that even a good pair of shoes might last as little as a week. For me, that’s definitely not the case—but I do opt to renew my running shoes every year or so.
Supporting your body mass for hundreds of miles wears down your trusty footwear, eventually depleting their shock absorption, cushioning and stability, and causing discomfort or a host of injuries.
While these routine replacements can be pretty pricey, my frugal (or cheap, some might say) self decided to put my wellbeing above my wallet and upgrade my kicks. So I traded my silver striped Adidas Adiprenes for last year’s Saucony Kinvara in a highlighter yellow (because older models have lower price tags).
Now, my worn-out Adidas shoes have been tossed to the back of my closet, where they’ll presumably be forgotten. But is there a better way to rid myself of my old running shoes?
I can’t just toss my shoes in the garbage: that would, very obviously, create waste. Not to mention that most running shoes are comprised of as many as 50 different components, including a number of metallics, plastic foam and solvents that can disintegrate into harmful pollutants.
So I decided I’d do a bit of poking around and find out who is doing what for the environment when it comes to running shoes. How can my unwearable Adidas spend their second life anywhere but the landfill?
1. Should I donate?
Naturally, the first thing that comes to mind when contemplating ways to clear my closet of my retired running shoes is to simply donate them.
Among the many organizations working to collect and redistribute used shoes are Soles4Soles, which sells clothing and shoes to micro-organizations to help boost developing economies. The Shoe Bank provides shoes for people both in the States and overseas. The MORE Foundation Group forwards donations to vendors in Ghana.
My donation would keep my tired-out footwear away from a landfill—AKA shoe hell—and I’d simultaneously help to provide someone with a pair of shoes. Sounds great… unless you consider the negative economic impact of many international shoe donation programs. And the problems don’t end there.
Despite the kind intentions of shoe donations, I can’t quite let go of my ethical qualms with handing over my beaten-up old running shoes to another runner. My Adidas are too worn out to keep my feet healthy, so I certainly wouldn’t want anyone else to suffer injuries from their overused condition. Every runner deserves good shoes.
And second, donation only seems to sidestep the issue of waste by adding a few more years to my Adidas’ lifespan. Donating ultimately won’t spare my shoes from the landfill.
2. Should I buy a different brand?
Lots of popular shoe companies have been working to mitigate the environmental risks of consumers’ shoes.
Nike’s come up with an innovative and sustainable approach to this donate-your-shoes quandary. Their Reuse-a-Shoe program grants old shoes new lives by grinding them down and then building them back up into play structures, tracks, and zippers.
However, you will need to take your shoes to one of the many designated drop-off locations, which are not always conveniently located. For instance, there are exactly zero in my region, so my Adidas would have to do a little traveling before they can start their second life.
And Nike’s not the only company keeping the environment in mind. New Balance adheres to a restricted substances program, eliminating and limiting many of the harmful substances used to make shoes. Brooks began selling their ultra-environmentally friendly Green Silence in 2009, which featured 75 percent recycled material in 100 percent recycled packaging. They’ve since discontinued the model, but still incorporate their innovative BioMoGo, a biodegradable midsole, into the shoes they make.
But even so, it’s new companies that are leading the way in terms of environmental products. Newton, a seven-year-old Colorado-based company, has stressed its commitment to environmentally sound merchandise from the get-go. In addition to their commitment to social responsibility, the young shoe company developed a shoebox made from 100 percent post-consumer waste, which they produce alongside running shoes in their factories.
3. Should I use lightweight shoes?
Alternatively, the brave eco-conscious runner may turn to barefoot running shoes, which are basically gloves for your feet. Their minimalist design means they require fewer materials to produce, making them inherently eco-friendly and prompting many manufacturers to market them as an environmentally sound purchase.
But VivoBarefoot is one barefoot shoe retailer that goes the extra mile for the environmental cause. The company, founded in 2004, works to minimize environmental impact by using locally sourced and recycled components, choosing stitching over glue and aiming to create more durable shoes.
However, if you’re considering going barefoot, do some research before slapping on your first pair of barefoot shoes. You’ll need to gradually work your way into a barefoot running routine; otherwise the sudden change might shock your body and cause avoidable injuries.
Personally, I haven’t yet considered barefoot running shoes as an option. I’m prone to tripping, or and I think stubbing my toe in barefoot shoes might mean the end of my running days. (And to be honest, I just don’t think I’ll be able to pull them off, fashion-wise!)
While there’s no perfect solution to closing the loop when it comes to the production of running shoes, there are a number of options for the ecologically conscious consumer—from donating old shoes, to recycling retired sneakers, to barefoot running shoes.
Had I explored my options before picking up my new shoes, I probably would have opted for something more eco-friendly than my inexpensive Sauconys. After all, we can’t just rely on recycling to handle our used sneakers. We need to rethink how we make and buy shoes, so that there’s less waste to be recycled.
As for my old Adidas, I’m hoping they’ll make a nice track surface after I hand them over to Reuse-a-Shoe.
Molly Cornfield is a freelance writer, UCLA environmental science graduate and aspiring environmental health advocate living in DC. In the past eight years, she’s lived in five different cities in three states and on two continents. Her love for chocolate is second to none.