On Science

If the Shoes Fit …

Footwear consumerism conflicts with environmental concerns

By Josie Glausiusz | December 11, 2013
Photo by Mark Barkaway
Photo by Mark Barkaway


What do women want? More specifically, why do they want so many pairs of shoes? The average woman, according to various studies, owns between 19 and 27 pairs of shoes and wears only seven pairs regularly. (Men own an average of 12 pairs or less.) Reasons women offer for their shoe purchases include: “They just make me happy,” “They make my feet look smaller and more beautiful,” “My shoes always boost my mood,” “Shoes don’t make you fat,” “for the effect it has on the men around them. … It’s such a power rush,” and women think their feet are ugly so they hide them with something pretty.”

But what happens to all those unworn shoes? Ninety-five per cent of the 20 billion pairs of shoes produced around the world each year are eventually dumped in landfills, shedding toxic chemicals such as chromium (used in the leather tanning process) and noxious glues applied to cheaper footwear. Few shoes are recycled because each one may contain up to 40 different types of material—including plastic foam, rubber, and leather—that are stitched or stuck together. Now, a new recycling system developed by Shahin Rahimifard, director of the Centre for Sustainable Manufacturing and Recycling Technologies (SMART) at Loughborough University in England aims to rescue some of these abandoned shoes from perpetual burial.

The system uses shredders to slice a mishmash of shoes into fragments, which are then shaken, sieved, and separated automatically into particles of different densities and sizes. These sorted particles include “fluffs” or light pieces of fabric that can be reconstituted into slabs for use as insulators in the construction industry; polymers that can be reused in footwear manufacture, surfacing of playing fields or carpet underlay; and chunks of leather that can be repurposed into handbags or furniture.

Ideally, Rahimifard contends, a shoe should be wholly recyclable from the start, which would obviate the need for complicated recycling facilities for poorly designed footwear. But perhaps we would be even better off if we didn’t feel the need to buy so many shoes. “In general, I am of the opinion that people in the developed world buy and discard too many consumer products, including shoes,” Rahimifard told me via email. If those 20 billion pairs of shoes were lined up lengthways, he adds, they would circumnavigate the globe more than 100 times.

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