The return route

What happens to shoes
which are disposed of?

The length of time a pair of shoes is worn varies considerably: shoes become relevant for waste management from the point in time when they are disposed of. The period which passes between purchasing shoes and disposing of them depends on several factors, for example how heavily they are used, whether they are fashion shoes or practical shoes or how long they are kept at home.
There are three basic reasons why shoes are disposed of: they are no longer liked, they no longer fit (e.g. children’s shoes) or they are ruined.
While damaged shoes normally end up in the residual waste, shoes which are really still in order but are no longer liked or do not fit are reused. This re-use can take various forms:

  • Handing on privately
  • Selling them on using online platforms or at flea markets
  • Giving them directly to second-hand shops
  • Passing them on to charitable collectors of second-hand clothes (Caritas, Red Cross, Kolping, Humana, Volkshilfe, etc.) as a donation
  • Returning them to larger stores of major shoe chains

The shoes mostly find their way to their new owners using fast routes via private channels or online platforms. Shoes which are re-used via the second-hand clothes collection have often taken a long journey.

The shoes collected by the second-hand clothes collection are generally sorted abroad by quality using foreign sorting systems. Good products (some 30 – 40% of the second-hand clothes) are sold, the remainder are recycled as cleaning cloths or insulating material or have to be disposed of directly (approx. 10%). However, as the recycling of shoes is very tricky, damaged shoes are normally sorted out and disposed of.

On average, every Austrian disposes of 1 – 2kg of shoes per annum in residual waste. During the course of the following sequence, these shoes are either incinerated at a waste incineration plant or treated mechanically and organically. Whatever remains of the shoe following incineration or mechanical and organic treatment is ultimately deposited at a landfill.

Text: DI Gudrun Obersteiner, Universität für Bodenkultur, Wien
Saturday, 15. August 2015