Employee Bamba does a quality check on the latest shipment at ShoeBox Recycling.
A local recycling startup is putting a new twist on an old business, aiming to prove that green is golden.
ShoeBox Recycling, based in Fairless Hills, Pa., is on a mission to recycle unwanted shoes. Not for spare parts — but for reuse in a global, textile-hungry marketplace.
Shoes are shipped to partners in developing countries like Sierra Leone, where they are cleaned and resold at an affordable price. American-made goods are in high demand.
“We’re breathing a little bit of new life into an ancient industry,” said Ira Baseman, the Founder of ShoeBox Recycling. “We’re taking material that has a second life and finding value in reuse.”
The concept is simple. The average closet is a treasure trove of shoes. Few get regular use; others are no longer wanted or stylish. ShoeBox Recycling wants individuals and families to scour their homes for gently worn pairs. Once recyclers sign up on its website, the company covers shipping costs.
“People want to recycle, but they don’t always know how to go about it,” said Lisa Pomerantz, Vice President of Marketing at ShoeBox Recycling. Three hundred million pairs of reusable shoes end up in landfills every year.
Schools, nonprofits, and retailers can also participate by encouraging their members and customers to get rid of unwanted shoes. ShoeBox Recycling provides the boxes and pays participating nonprofit groups a weight-based sum. Retailers can donate any proceeds to the charity of their choice.
“It’s fundraising without having to sell anything,” said Pomerantz. “An action here is a positive action somewhere else.”
A local impact
Greensgrow Farms in Kensington is a nonprofit that partners with ShoeBox Recycling. Customers and community members purge their closets while supporting the urban farm.
“It was just a natural fit,” said Bryn Ashburn, a spokesperson for Greensgrow. With a little bit of outreach and signage around the farm, the concept caught on. “ShoeBox has been great to work with and made recycling really easy. It’s a permanent thing here,” she said.
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ShoeBox Recycling is relying heavily on social media and its ability to track shoes — recyclers can leave messages to a future owner or “soulmate” — to win new followers.
“As a recycling company, we’re not terribly different from other recycling companies,” said Baseman. But ShoeBox Recycling is a for-profit venture, unlike groups such as Goodwill or Soles4Souls that also accept donated or recycled goods.
“Because we are for-profit, we can initiate change without a lot of red tape. We can do well and do good,” said Pomerantz.
According to ShoeBox Recycling, a profit status allows it to purchase shoes from a growing list of community partners. “If we weren’t a for-profit, it would be a different model,” she said.
The startup wants consumers to think beyond a donation-oriented approach. “We’re talking about business practices,” explained Baseman. “We’re getting as close to the marketplace as we are to the recycler.”
Similar concepts, different routes
Souls4Soles is a Tennessee-based nonprofit that recycles shoes to benefit people in need. A large portion of its inventory goes toward crisis relief — shoes are donated to people living in abject poverty. The rest are reserved for microenterprises that clean, repair and resell the shoes.
Roughly half of the shoes are new. Souls4Soles has become a go-to organization for manufacturers looking to unload merchandise unsuitable for sale. The North Face and Puma are some of the top-tier brands that donate to the group on a consistent basis.
“We give them an avenue to get something off their books and have it go to a good cause,” said Keith Woodley, the Chief Development Officer at Souls4Soles. “Corporations take a tax write-off, so they’re incentivized to feel good.”
“We could radically change the world if we consumed a little less and donated a little more,” said Woodley. “Someone could right now go to their closet and make a difference in someone else’s life.”
Photo via Shoebox Recycling