Hesperian Health Guides

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Pollution from shoe factories

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HealthWiki > Workers' Guide to Health and Safety > Chapter 6: Shoe factories > Pollution from shoe factories


Most factories haul their waste materials off to be disposed of in dumps. When their waste contains chemicals, this can result in the contamination of the ground and groundwater. Where it is prohibited to dump chemicals in ordinary landfills, unethical companies try to save money by pouring wastes such as dyes, glue, and other chemicals directly into the sewer. While this practice may be against the law, it can be difficult to find a government official willing to challenge the company to stop this practice.

But there is another environmental problem with shoe wastes that is harder to stop. What happens to shoes when they are worn out? Some leather shoes are made to last a long time. But most of the shoes we buy break easily (such as plastic sandals) or go out of style quickly (such as sport shoes).

In some countries, shoes get repaired or reused. In others, shoes go straight into the dump. From there they go to the landfill or incinerator. As the soles degrade, the chemicals used in processing the rubber or plastic while making them become a pollution problem as they are released into the environment. If they are burned, chemicals get into the air even more quickly.

Phthalates are one of the most common chemicals released. They are harmful to the reproductive system. Other harmful substances include heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, and mercury as well as aromatic hydrocarbons. See Appendix B: Common chemicals and materials.

Old shoes make new things

A few shoe companies have programs to reuse and recycle old shoes.

Nike uses waste materials and old Nike shoes to make flooring for playgrounds. The material is ground up and divided into rubber, foam, and fibers, and then mixed with other chemicals to make flooring. Many people who buy and use Nike shoes like the idea that their old shoes can become new things. However, the flooring made from Nike contains the same harmful chemicals used to make the shoes and can poison the land and water. To make shoe production truly sustainable, the company should eliminate all toxic chemicals from production and ensure that reused materials do not contain toxic chemicals.

Some plastic shoes, such as sandals and Crocs, are easier to recycle because they can be ground up and melted to make new ones.