From Worn In to Worn Out: What To Do With Old Shoes
You finally get them there. A pair of newly broken-in boots perfectly molded to the contours of your foot, it’s like you’re walking on air.
But suddenly, like Cinderella (sort of), your beloved pair transitions to nothing more than some old shoes and you get that itching desire to buy more.
Turns out it’s not just Carrie Bradshaw who has a shoe problem.
Maybe they get worn down or you just get sick of them. Whatever the case may be, there’s no reason to leave them languishing on the shelf or chucking them in the trash—where they could spend up to four decades breaking down.
Your tired dress shoes or broken-down running shoes could get a second life, even if they’re no longer wearable.
So what’s the responsible answer to the age-old problem of what to do with old shoes?
Well, there isn’t a sole solution, but if you tighten your laces we’ll run you through all the options.
1. Donate Old Shoes
This can feel like the easy solution when you’re trying to figure out what to do with old, beat-up shoes—but check the shoes thoroughly before you drop them off.
If they have a hole, are missing a sole, or look otherwise past their useful life, the odds are high that any thrift store will trash them. In fact, Goodwill recently sent out a plea begging people to stop “donating” their trash.
If you can’t picture another person wearing the shoes, don’t donate them. If the shoes need serious repairs to be functional, don’t make them a thrift store or charity organization’s problem.
And if your shoes still have life in them, clean them up before donating them so that organizations will have an easier time finding a new owner.
Don’t trust that local thrift stores will actually find a new home for your old flats?
That’s a fair concern, considering a conservatively estimated 90% of donated items don’t get resold.
Instead, consider donating them to a more specialized charity like Soles4Souls. This charity focuses on diverting new and gently used shoes and clothes from landfill to people in poverty who can benefit from them.
All told, if you’re parting with a pair of shoes because you’re tired of them or they don’t fit your style or feet, donating them to a charity or thrift store can give them a second life.
But if you’re trying to figure out what to do with broken shoes, save your local organization the hassle of trashing your old shoes and keep reading for a better fit.
2. Sell Old Shoes Online
Wondering what to do with an old pair of shoes that you just don’t love anymore? Or those running shoes that rubbed in the wrong place?
If your shoes are in good shape, donating them isn’t your only option. You could also turn them into a buck or two for yourself.
Eco and budget-conscious shoppers are increasingly turning to platforms to sell clothes online and to snag items they want. And if you take advantage, you know your old kicks are going somewhere wanted.
Of course, this option is better for dress shoes or like-new athletic shoes than for your worn-down running shoes.
3. Mend / Repair Old Shoes
If the issue comes down to the shoe’s wear, not its style, look into getting it repaired. You might be surprised just how much a cobbler can do.
Generally, shoe-fixing professionals can repair:
- High heels
- Dress boots
- Work boots
- Some running shoes
This gets especially handy if you’re considering parting with the shoe because of a bad fit. If it pinches your toes or rubs at your heel, a cobbler may be able to stretch or otherwise modify it to give you a better fit (depending on material).
Finding a local cobbler is ideal, but if you don’t have access to one near you online clothes repair services are available.
Alternatively, there are some repairable shoe brands that offer repair services for shoes they made, such as:
- VYN’s self-repair model
- GORAL’s REBUILD+ service
- Vivobarefoot’s repair services
- NuShoe’s repair and rebuild services for running shoes
You generally need to have purchased a shoe from the specific brand to take advantage of their repair offering, so keep this in mind when shopping for new shoes.
If you weren’t thinking that far ahead when you bought your shoes a few years ago and your local cobbler can’t help, keep solediering on below.
4. Recycle Old Shoes
What do you do with old shoes that can’t be donated, upcycled, or otherwise given a second life?
Before you trash them, think: recycling.
To start, check with the shoe’s manufacturer in case they have their own return-and-recycle program. Giving the shoe straight back to the brand gives the pair the best chance of being recycled efficiently, possibly into a new pair of shoes to boot.
Here are some ethical shoe brands that offer closed-loop shoe recycling programs:
- On’s subscription-based Cyclon™ program
- VEJA stores accept old shoes to recycle them into new ones
- Thousand Fell rewards you with $20 to return their old kicks to them
- The Virtuous Circle Program by Nothing New also offers $20 off a new pair for recycling
- Nike stores accept any brand of athletic shoes to break down and reuse in future pairs of Nikes or in surfacing for playgrounds, tracks, and more
Beyond shoe manufacturers, TerraCycle offers a Zero Waste Box just for shoes. Purchase it and you can send them as many old shoes (regardless of condition) as you can fit in the box so all components can get recycled. Fortunately, it looks like your options for gently worn shoes—and shoe recycling program choices in general—should only grow from here.
American Textile Recycling Service operates donation bins across the country.
I:CO and SOEX launched the world’s first shoe recycling plant with the sole (pun intended) purpose of recycling shoes so more and more companies will be able to take back your old shoes.
5. Compost Old Cotton, Hemp, and Bamboo Shoes
This one can get tricky, but if you know the brand of shoe you’re working with, you can probably find the info you need to figure out if it will work.
Basically, in order for the shoe to be compostable, it needs to be made entirely of natural materials that will break down. That seems obvious, right?
The thing you might not consider, though, is how the shoe is held together. If it’s bound by specific types of glue or some synthetic material, it can’t be composted.
That means your running shoes and high heels probably aren’t a candidate here.
But if you have single-material options—like all-wool sustainable slippers from Baabuk or Nootkas—you might be able to make this work.
Check with the manufacturer. AURA QUE, for example, specifically says their felted wool slippers can be composted once you remove the thread.
While it might not help you with the old shoes you have on hand now, knowing you can buy shoes designed to be composted can help next time you’re shoe shopping.
6. Repurpose / Upcycle Old Shoes
Just like us humans can reinvent ourselves, so too can your old shoes. Think about turning them into something (almost) as functional as footwear.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Fill an old boot with concrete, rocks, or sand to make a doorstop
- Virtually any shoe can be a planter (i.e., a rain boot for a small tree, a flat for a succulent garden)
- Worn-out sneakers or running shoes can become a quick bird house by nailing the sole to a tree and dropping some bird seed in the toe
As with any upcycled clothing project, creativity is key.
Look at your specific pair of shoes. If you like the look of the whole shoe, that can spin off into a myriad of projects.
If not, evaluate how you could use the materials in the shoe if you deconstructed it. You might find the perfect materials for your next project.
7. Downcycle Old Shoes
Need supplies for an art project? If you took apart your old shoes, how could you use the components?
It might feel crazy to cut into what was once a perfectly good pair of shoes, but if they’re now past their useful life, this option can be better for the planet—and your craft supply budget.
Here are a few ideas to get your wheels turning:
- Foam from flip flops and the soles of running shoes can be cut up to make coasters
- Laces can serve as sturdy ties for anything you need to secure around the house or ribbon for gift wrap
- Shoes with a lot of leather can be stripped for covering a journal, making a keychain, creating a phone case—you get the idea
8. Swap With Friends
As you’re figuring out what to do with old shoes, start asking friends about their shoe sizes. Maybe even keep a note in your phone of friends with similarly sized feet.
Once you have a few old pairs you’re tired of wearing, organize a shoe swap.
Tell people to bring their running shoes, boots, dress shoes, flats—anything they’ve got lying around. Those shoes you’re sick of might be the perfect fit for a friend’s wardrobe update.
And since everyone’s will hopefully be at least gently used, you don’t have to worry about breaking in a new pair.
9. How to Dispose of Old Shoes Responsibly
Still wondering what to do with old, mismatched shoes? Or what to do with running shoes with holes?
If you’ve exhausted all of your other options, the best way to get rid of them is to put them straight in the trash. Resort to this option only when you can’t find a local drop-off, send-back to a retailer, or afford an option like TerraCycle.
It might feel wrong, but putting your completely worn-out shoes in the trash bin is a more responsible way of disposing of them than putting them in the recycling bin.
Because most shoes are created from several materials melded together, standard recycling facilities aren’t equipped to handle them.
Tossing them in the recycling bin qualifies as an act of wishcycling: a well-intentioned behavior that actually hampers effective recycling processes. Such contamination may lead entire bins of otherwise perfectly recyclable goods to simply be thrown away.
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Why You Should Responsibly Dispose of Old Shoes
Most of these options for what to do with old shoes require some time and effort, which begs the question: is it all worth it?
In the 60 years that the EPA has been tracking clothing and footwear waste, the amount getting landfilled has skyrocketed—from 2 million tons in 1980 to 9 million tons in 2018.
This issue continues to develop into a literal mountain—and it shows no signs of slowing down.
Between fast fashion and the quickly evolving tech in the world of running shoes, we buy new shoes all the time. One survey found more than 50% of people buy at least one pair of sports or running shoes each year.
No wonder footwear accounts for about 30% of the fashion industry’s impact with its annual production of 700 million tons of CO2.
But you can help reduce these numbers by first considering sustainability—both how they’re made and how they’ll last—when shopping for new shoes like:
- Ethical sandals
- Recycled flip-flops
- Ethical heels
- Sustainable sneakers
- Sustainable running shoes
- Sustainable flats
- Ethical boots
- Recycled shoes
That doesn’t solve the problem of the old shoes you’ve already got hanging around, though. For each pair you want to part with, review the options on your list.
What works for one set of shoes might not work for another, but you now have a full spectrum of solutions to help you responsibly dispose of old shoes.
Final Thoughts On What To Do With Old Shoes
For the Carrie Bradshaws of the world, shoes are life. For others, shoes are a function.
Whatever shoes are to you, they’re an important part of your wardrobe.
But they also play an unfortunate role in filling our landfills.
So, to do your part in minimizing the decades-long landfill ramifications here, find the best option for your old shoes—and while you’re at it, your old clothes; old bras and underwear; old Tupperware containers, old jeans and old pillows(!)—so you can responsibly send them off into the sunset.
If you know a shoe-aholic with too many pairs of old shoes destined for landfill, share these solutions with them so they too can be inspired to clean out their pile
And who knows, if you’re the same shoe size you might just benefit from the shoe swap they’re going to plan!