Slightly more than a decade ago, Dutch designer Christiaan Maats decided to bury a pair of shoes. It wasn’t a gimmick, but the result of three years of research to introduce biodegradable footwear.
It didn’t quite work out for Maats and the four styles in his OAT—an acronym meaning Of All Time—brand, billed as “the world’s first biodegradable shoes that bloom.” The shoes were made with organic hemp canvas, cork and bio-cotton, and were certified as biodegradable. A sheet embedded with wildflower seeds was placed in a pocket in each shoe’s tongue, and consumers could “plant” the whole shoe or just the seed sheet. As the shoes decomposed, flowers bloomed. Financial issues derailed the company after five years, but the innovator’s vision continues with many other companies that understand a major industry issue.
According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, Americans throw away at least 300 million pairs of shoes each year. They end up in landfills and can take 40 years to decompose. Ethylene vinyl acetate, which often comprises the midsole of most running shoes, can last for as long as 1,000 years in a landfill.
Over the last several years, many companies, particularly those offering running and fitness shoes, have introduced styles with various levels of biodegradability. “I know that New Balance and Mizuno are coming out with totally 100% recyclable shoes,” says Russ Kozar, owner of Fleet Feet in Fort Myers. “And a lot of the brands now with their boxes are taking away ink and going with just brown boxes and a small logo. It’s double-edged; they are all starting to come up with recycled shoes, and they’re also reducing their carbon footprint with their packaging.”
Shoes sold online are still often mailed with a shipping box containing the shoe manufacturer’s box. “To me, it’s redundant,” says Kozar. “You’re creating double. Just like the packing slip. Can we cut that down to a quarter-page versus a full page? It just goes into the trash; we all know that. Not too many people are good recyclers, unfortunately.”
Fit2Run in Naples offers the Swiss brand On. Last year, it debuted Cyclon, the industry’s first subscription-based shoe service. Subscribers pay about $30 per month. When needed, an old pair is exchanged via mail for a new pair. The used shoes are recycled to make new items. The company’s high-performance running shoe weighs about 7 ounces and is made with more than 50% bio-based material.
“Technically, the exchange is through On via our customer service line,” says Junior Siffort, the store’s assistant manager. “You can ask an associate to help with a return, and if they’re able to do it, they’ll do it at that moment, or they will direct you to On.”