Recycling with Sole

Soles4Souls, a nonprofit shoe recycling program, strives to stay one step ahead of landfills.

It has never been easier or more fashionable to be "green" than it is right now. From the appliances we put in our homes to the cars we put on the road, Americans are more aware of their carbon footprint than ever before, and more willing to do something to lessen their impact on the environment.

According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, Americans throw away at least 300 million pairs of shoes each year. These shoes end up in landfills, where they can take 30 to 40 years to decompose. Nashville, Tenn.-based Soles4Souls is an international non-profit dedicated to diverting usable shoes from landfills and redistributing them to people in need.

Astonishingly, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the number of children around the world who have never owned a pair of shoes also equals 300 million. In fact, it's one of the primary benchmarks the agency uses to denote "abject poverty," the most severe level of poverty on USAID's scale. Those who live in abject poverty are defined as being "without hope."

Since the launch of Soles4Souls in 2005, more than 7.5 million pairs of shoes have been distributed to people in need, whether they are suffering from extreme poverty or are victims of natural disasters. The charity's impact relies heavily on support from individuals, so it has designed shoe drive programs for schools, civic groups, churches, businesses and other local organizations that encourage members to recycle their "gently worn" shoes. The benefit is a tangible sense of doing something positive for the environment while also providing aid to less fortunate people.

Wayne Elsey, founder and CEO of Soles4Souls, started the charity with the idea of offering every person the opportunity to get involved, regardless of their circumstances. "Our participants are the backbone of this organization," Elsey says. "By doing something as simple as cleaning out their closets, they are improving the quality of someone else's life while improving the quality of their environment."

The idea of recycling and repurposing footwear for charity has caught the attention of groups like the Georgia Recycling Coalition (GRC). In October of 2009, GRC and Keep Georgia Beautiful joined forces with Soles4Souls to launch one of the largest shoe recycling initiatives in the country. The group placed shoe recycling bins at more than 200 drop-off locations throughout the state. More than 50,000 pairs of shoes were collected during the three-month recycling pilot program.

Other states are beginning to roll out similar programs in hopes of repeating Georgia's success. Kansas and New York are slated to launch shoe recycling initiatives in 2010.

Usually, donated shoes are shipped to Soles4Souls' processing warehouse in Roanoke, Ala., where the shoes are sorted according to size, gender and overall condition. A small percentage of shoes collected every year are too worn to be repurposed and are recycled into athletic flooring. None of the shoes received by the charity are thrown away.

So far, 2010 has been Soles4Souls' busiest year yet, with more than 7,000 shoe drives hosted on behalf of the charity in less than three months. Each day, more individuals, schools, churches, businesses and other non-profit organizations are joining forces with Soles4Souls in order to become "greener" while providing a simple gift to people in dire need.

Elizabeth Kirk is the public relations representative for Soles4Souls in Nashville, Tenn.

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