Running’s simplicity and streamlined gear is one reason athletes of all backgrounds love the sport—and can easily get into it. The caveat: run footwear and apparel breaks down over time, like any outdoor equipment or gear. And that’s not so ideal for the planet.
Prior to the pandemic, the global footwear industry broke production records, with companies making 24.3 billion pairs of shoes, according to the APICCAPS World Footwear 2020 Yearbook. The national trend continues, too. In the United States, experts predict the revenue of footwear sales to rise 16 percent above pre-pandemic 2019 levels by next year, reports NPD. Performance footwear—namely, running shoes—is leading those sales overall, as the demand for sneakers both for exercise and outdoor wear continues to rise. So it’s clear there’s a demand for more shoes and more gear.
For the average consumer, running shoes break down somewhere between 300 and 500 miles, depending on frequency and duration of use, where you run, general care, and your gait. Meanwhile, apparel break down depends on several factors, like how often you wear an item, how well you take care of it, and other factors.
But when you’re ready to toss the gear you’ve outworn, where does it end up, especially if your local thrift shop doesn’t accept or can’t resell the kit?
The EPA estimates that the nation generated 13 million tons of clothing and footwear in 2018. The amount of those goods that was recycled (excluding reuse through means such as thrift stores) was close to only 1.7 million tons—a 13 percent recycling rate. Landfills hold the other 11.3 million tons of textile waste. To put that in perspective: That’s the weight equivalent of more than 1.5 million of the largest male elephants on the planet (they weigh 15,000 pounds each).
If you’re looking to contribute to keeping your textiles out of landfills, here’s how to help save the earth—while keeping in mind the four R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle, rethink, and still getting your new gear when you need it.
How to Recycle Running Shoes
Despite being seemingly simple, run shoes are difficult to recycle. Each pair has a combination of rubber, foam, fiber, leather, glue, textiles, or even metal, but not every shoe has the same exact type and percentage of materials, nor are all the pieces typically recyclable.
As for where to start, though, look to the Nike Grind program, which accepts footwear (with the exception of any shoes containing metal, like cleats or spikes). For three decades, the initiative has transformed end-of-life footwear into materials for a range of products from the rubber in Lyft Bikeshare stations to turf fields, playgrounds, carpet padding, and outdoor tracks. Any runner can take advantage of recycling any brand of athletic sneaker via the program by dropping off the footwear at a participating Nike retail store. Footwear that can be refurbished is sanitized and sold at a discount, too.
Similarly, Adidas has a Give Back program in which you can send shoes (and apparel) in any condition, and from any brand, in a box with a prepaid label. The company will then resell or reuse the gear. Those who donate also get membership points or brand vouchers.
Terracycle, a U.S.-based recycling company that specializes in unique, hard-to-recycle waste programs, also has an option for shoes and footwear. Though the box you buy is pricey, the company takes care of everything after that initial payment—that means shipping and getting rid of your gear in an earth-friendly way.
Soles4Souls, which collects gently used footwear for entrepreneurs in developing countries to sell, as well as One World Running, which collects, washes, sorts, and ships athletic shoes to those in need in developing countries also accept donations from individual runners nationwide.
Recycled Shoes You Can Buy Now
If you’re looking to buy new shoes, you also have the option to go for a pair that’s already made of recycled materials.
To help deal with the waste from footwear, Salomon recently launched a recyclable run shoe, the Index.01, and free-of-charge recycling collection after wear-and-tear of the shoe. Shifting to a circular production model, On Running likewise debuted a recyclable running shoe, the Cyclon, that’s subscription based—that means the brand replaces up to two pairs per year and recycles the old pairs into new versions.
“A circular model means that we design products that have long-lasting value and can be remanufactured in addition to being reused or repaired,” says On Running head of innovation business strategy, Francois-Xavier Dosne.
To achieve the innovation, the biggest challenge was determining the right materials without sacrificing quality or performance. Dosne says, “This shoe’s upper knit is built from a 100 percent bio-based material derived from castor beans, a material that took our team years to find.”
A handful of companies are likewise innovating footwear with sustainability in mind. To name a few, Reebok launched the Floatride Energy Grow, a running shoe made with 50 percent plant-based materials. Nike recently introduced the Nike Alphafly Next Nature with at least 50 percent recycled content by weight. Adidas also designed the Terrex Two Ultra Primeblue Trail Running Shoes with yarn in the upper that contains at least 50 percent recycled ocean plastic and 50 percent recycled polyester. Based in Europe, the Zen Running Club, which has a pop up store in Los Angeles, focuses on developing certified vegan running shoes with three plant-based materials: eucalyptus, sugarcane, and natural rubber.
Local Programs That Reuse Running Shoes
Runners Roost stores, throughout the Denver area, receive nearly 5,000 shoes donated annually. Their 10 storefronts have provided a used footwear drop-off for at least 12 years, estimates Kent Wories, the general manager of Runners Roost. The grassroots program has evolved over time, based on the needs of partner organizations such as the Denver Rescue Mission, Wounded Warrior Project, and the Catholic Charities of Denver, which select and funnel the footwear to people in need.
“The shape of the donated shoes runs the full gamut from you can hardly tell it was used to pretty beat up. Close to half of the shoes are definitely in good reusable condition,” says Wories. Footwear that needs refurbishment before being donated for reuse goes to Soles4Souls, while others go to One World Running.
Other run retailers nationwide collect footwear for similar nonprofit efforts. Charm City Run, which has six retail locations around Maryland and organizes nearly 100 annual endurance events, launched the Live. Give. Run. Foundation, in 2020, a nonprofit that channels footwear donations to folks in need.
Philadelphia Runner, in Pennsylvania, hosts shoe drive fundraisers to provide gently used and new footwear to Sneakers4Funds, a program that serves athletic communities across the nation, which kicks back a check for the fundraiser cause in exchange for the goods.
California-based Sports Basement donates old running shoes to Recycle for Change, a clothing collection program that operates all over California, which sells the products to second-hand clothing stores nationally and abroad. Those funds support training programs for volunteers working in sustainable development throughout Southern Africa, Central and South America, and their local communities.
How to Recycle Running Apparel
In addition to footwear, Terracycle offers a countrywide zero waste program for fabrics and clothing, as well as backpacks, which is one of the best organized—albeit costly—programs for individuals to send in their personal run apparel to be recycled.
As for other options, One World Running also collects t-shirts and shorts. The Live. Give. Run. Foundation, Recycle for Change, and Soles4Souls each accept run apparel, too. (The North Face partners with the latter to host collection bins for both clothes and shoes in U.S. retail and outlet stores.)
Patagonia’s Worn Wear program lets you trade in Patagonia garments for credit towards another purchase, used or new, then repairs and resells the items. Items that can’t be repurposed are sitting in the brand’s Reno, Nevada warehouse until a better solution is determined in in lieu of landfill or incineration. (According to Patagonia, the majority of those recyclable items were formerly sent to China and India, which both stopped importing waste textile in 2018 and 2019.)
In step, REI Co-op launched a used gear website for members, where folks can receive credit for trading in gently aged products (as long as the gear is listed in the trade-in catalog) or shop for used items. (As long as the insoles and laces are intact and there are no visible foot imprints or holes, footwear is accepted, too.) The organization also extended the popular annual Garage Sale with year-round used gear options, which you’ll find in the majority of retail stores.
Programs That Recirculate Run Apparel
With collection bins around New York City Wearable Collections provides a range of services for textile recycling (and sneakers) from shredding to placement in second-hand markets. (Wearable Collections even partnered with the New York City Marathon, in 2009, to collect and recycle a huge portion of the discarded clothing from runners.) Close to 50 percent of the collected items are reusable, 26 percent get shredded for other use such as insulation, 20 percent of the items get turned into rags, and 4 percent is totally non-recyclable, reports the organization.
To support a program that keeps run apparel out of the landfill, check out the Renewal Workshop, an apparel restoration program for the discarded clothing of partner brands, such as Champion Made and Vuori.
Adidas also just announced a recycled collection, called Nothing Left Behind, made from gear donated from their pros and staffers, in collaboration with the Renewal Workshop. (The gear is going back to its original owners and won’t be available for purchase, but you can sign up for the adiClub to enter a raffle to win a piece from the collection.)
How the Renewal Workshop process works: A waterless cleaning technology sanitizes textiles followed by repair work that’s certified before returning to the market with a co-branded tag. If apparel can’t be repaired—like replacing a zipper or stitching a seam—the company either upcycles (i.e. repurposes) the textile, such as using a jacket to create a tote, or recycles the material, meaning the product is broken down (also called downcycled). Recycled textiles can be used in other products, such as the textiles in a vehicle, or as raw material for a new garment altogether.
“No doubt, there are benefits on all sides: to the person bringing in footwear and apparel, because they don’t want it in a landfill. The donations supply the work of the people on the other side of the donations. And this donation program is an opportunity for us to engage with our customers and in our community,” says Wories.
One parting thought: The final ‘r’ in the earth-friendly motto of recycling is rethink. That means you should carefully consider when you need to buy new goods, focusing on getting the wear you can out of what you already own.