The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

May 6, 2009

Out of the seat and onto our feet. But is walking really plastic-free?

Monday was a beautiful day for the race — the human race, as Michael likes to say. And although rain appeared imminent, I decided to take a walk. As I mentioned a few months ago, I’ve slowly been switching my healthcare, dental, and other services to providers located within walking distance of my home. Less time on public transit. More time in the fresh air. My groovy new green dentist’s office is 12 minutes away via bicycle and 30-40 minutes on foot, depending on how leisurely I feel and how much time I have.

As with each of the modes of transportation I’m considering this week, walking has its pros and cons.


Although I live in an urban area with shops and services within walking distance, my walk is beautiful. Okay, that’s not fair. I live in California where flowers bloom all year round. But honestly, I can find something interesting to look at wherever I happen to be.

Walking is great exercise. Why would I take the bus (or drive) to the gym when I can get my cardio in just by walking to the dentist?

Walking requires no fossil fuels, especially if I’m fueling my body with local, organic foods.

Walking allows me to notice little things, like plastic trash on the ground, and do something about it. Some days I’ll focus on picking up bottle caps. Other days, plastic bags or drinking straws. Sometimes I just go for whatever seems to be calling out to me the loudest. I obviously can’t pick up all the plastic from the streets of Oakland, but doing this little bit helps me connect with the trash problem personally each day. I couldn’t do this if I were always on bike, bus, or train.

As I mentioned yesterday, my neighborhood is great for walking. In fact, according to the website America’s Most Walkable Neighborhoods, my community’s walk score is 85 out of 100, Very Walkable. You can type your own zip code or address into the box to get your community’s Walk Score. If it’s high, great! If it’s low, you’ve got work to do.

For example, contact your federal representatives and ask them to support the Complete Streets Act of 2009 “to ensure that all users of the transportation system, including pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users as well as children, older individuals, and individuals with disabilities, are able to travel safely and conveniently on streets and highways.”


Walking takes time.
Obviously we don’t always have time to walk to work or to our various appointments. But why not fit it in on those days when we do… or attempt to arrange our day to allow for some walking time? Wouldn’t it be nice to savor time rather than saving it?

Walking sucks in “bad” weather. Why, youngster, when I was your age, I slid on my bare hands and knees through glass to get to school. You kids don’t know how great you have it. But seriously, what is “bad”? The most fun I ever had as a kid was jumping in the rain-filled ditches all the way home from school with my friend Lenora. I think we both got into trouble for coming home soaked, but did we care? I don’t think so. My dad will remember this incident if he’s reading this post. The point is that umbrellas were invented for just this purpose.

Not everyone is physically able to walk. True. But not everyone is physically able to drive either. We do what we can.

Walking may not be entirely plastic-free. And if you have feet like mine, it surely isn’t. My mom has small, beautifully-arched feet. I did not inherit them. What I have have been described as “critter feet,” “hobbit feet,” or just plain “deformed.” They have practically no arch at all. When I started running several years ago, I went through four pairs of shoes in the first few months just trying to find a pair that would not give me shin splints or knee pain or black toenails requiring kitchen surgery. I finally found the only pair of shoes that has ever worked for me perfectly — these geeky looking New Balance 881s (which I think have been discontinued and replaced with 883s). And what are they made of? Plastic foam! Not recycled plastic. Not biodegradable plastic. Nothing even attempting to be eco-friendly. Since I stopped running a year ago (I really should start again) the shoes are still in decent shape for walking. But what can I do at the end of their lives?


Shoe recycling programs seem to come and go.  Your best bet to find one might be a Google search. Nike’s program grinds them up and downcycles them into playground surfaces. My local athetic shoe store, TranSports (also within walking distance of my home), has a shoe collection bin. I believe the shoes are shipped to Nike for the aforementioned grinding and surfacing. I’ll wait until my shoes are completely unwearable and then take them there (or add them to my plastic tally!) The shoe failures I went through before finding my 881s were given away to lucky Freecycle recipients.


Trolling around the web, I’ve found some interesting articles on shoe manufacturers attempting to make their shoes at least somewhat more eco-friendly. Here’s just a smattering of what I came across.

Brooks has developed the first biodegradable midsole for their running shoes. They are made of BioMoGo, EVA foam with an additive that causes them to break down within 20 years in a landfill. Whether or not this additive causes them to be unrecyclable in Nike’s program, I don’t know. I’ve contacted Brooks for more information and am waiting to hear back. Still, only the midsole will biodegrade. As far as I know, the rest of the shoe will not.

END Footwear, on the other hand, makes its shoes from recycled plastics. The company’s web site states that it is working on developing shoes that are completely sustainable and that “could be tossed into your compost pile.” In the meantime, they have partnered with to send used shoes to people without any shoes at all. [11/02/2013 Update: According to Treehugger, END Footwear has been discontinued.]

TOMS Shoes, based on the Argentinian alpargata, are slipons made from canvas with an EVA composite sole. Yes, that means plastic. But the beautiful thing about this company is that for every shoe sold, they donate a pair to children who can’t afford shoes. It’s a cool story. I contacted TOMS to find out about the environmental impact of the shoes and was told by a customer service rep that they “have an eco-friendly line coming out very soon” with uppers “from a certified organic source” and “the soles made from recycled rubber, with a very minimal amount of glue.” Interesting. However, I doubt these shoes would provide enough support for my poor feet.

Simple Shoes has a line called EcoSNEAKS, which are made from “materials like recycled car tires, certified organic cotton, PET (think recycled plastic bottles), recycled bike tires, and hemp.” [11/02/2013 Update: Simple Shoes is also out of business.]

Is there a different eco-friendly brand that you can recommend?

Of course, buying lightly worn shoes from thrift stores or getting them from Freecyclers like me is even better, if you don’t mind wearing used shoes. The bottom line is that while walking may not be a completely plastic-free activity, the plastic in shoes is significantly less than the 250 pounds in cars. Still, let’s be mindful of even this little bit and take steps to mitigate our plastic soleprints.

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13 years ago

I think I have the same problem as you with my feet! i used to have a pair of ECOsneaks but IMHO they sucked, no support for my poor underdeveloped feet. I have a pair of Brooks Mogos now, quite by accident as I went to get a consult from a podiatrist at a specialists shoe shop a couple of months ago and they ARE GREAT. It also appears that Brooks atleast tries to be an environmentally responsible company..

14 years ago

I think my birkenstocks are made with cork but I’d have to check. They have held up for 4 summers of hiking so far and still going strong :)

Paul D
14 years ago

Great shoe discussion. One important point you didn’t cover relates to the country of origin of the shoes and/or the shoe materials. Third-world countries tend to put very little emphasis on environmentally-friendly manufacturing. Thus they may dump waste streams directly into rivers, discard hazardous waste into landfills, or discharge toxic gases into the air. Thus when you buy a shoe made in such ways, you are a part of the world environmental degradation problem.

14 years ago

I bought a pair of END running shoes just two weeks backs and so far they’ve been a huge hit with me. The particular model I bought, the OTG, is super lite weight which in this case means it won’t give any protection at all in the rain, but like I’m going to actually convince myself to run in the rain. They’re also super attractive shoes that I’ve found myself wearing out and about.

Also, it’s worthwhile to note that they don’t just use recycled plastics and have donation drives lined-up. According to Zappos, they current output at least 95% less manufacturing waste than the typical manufacturer. Even better for us plastic haters, they’ve removed a large plastic component many running shoes have called the “shank” (which also helps reduce steel waste as a shank mold is made for every size of every model of shoe). They’ve ultimate goal isn’t just to make a compostable shoe but to make a shoe that doesn’t use any glue what-so-ever. Sounds pretty crazy to me yet exciting. If you ever find yourself purchasing new shoes, I really recommend the END brand.

14 years ago

By the way, did you see this Daily Mail article pooh-poohing running shoes and making a case for the bare foot? Not that we could go barefoot in the city, but it does give you pause about all the claims for running shoe features.

14 years ago

In addition to the "walking is not totally plastic-free" I would also mention that I wear through shoes SO much faster now that I walk more. Unfortunately nearly all of my walking is on concrete which wears down shoes pretty quickly when compared to something like carpet.

With that said, I have a couple of pairs of Simple shoes, which I really love. They are, well, simple, I appreciate the materials used and they are super comfy for someone like me who is not willing to endure pain for "cuteness". I need to walk to get places and pain from my shoes is not part of my plan. I'd also recommend looking into shoes that can be repaired or specifically seeking out a shoe repair shop in your area. A good shop can help extend the life of your shoes. I wish this idea would catch on not only in terms of getting better and more shoe repair places, but also when it comes to the manufacturers constructing the shoes with this in mind.

I also love not wearing shoes, but again, with the concrete and all of the hazards that come along with it & city life (broken glass, metal, razors, syringes) and the fact that many walkways are not shielded from the sun in any way, so the concrete is blazing hot, I almost never get out without shoes on :/

14 years ago


14 years ago

Check this out Beth.

14 years ago

What about produce. Like berries that are in plastic containers, or grapes in plastic bags?

Martin AKA PlasticLess
14 years ago has canvas sneakers with natural rubber soles and they also have all rubber flip flops.

I have to do some more homework about natural rubber but it is a renewable resource.

14 years ago

i’m a huge walker, and it was so interesting to see the pros and cons of walking. thanks so much!

feel free to check this out when you have a chance: “30 days to a greener you” )


14 years ago

If they are in super shape you can send em here:

Great info on the recycled materials front. Hoping to source more eco friendly sneaks next time round.

Condo Blues
14 years ago

Oops I meant to say that my old athetic shoes are usually donated to a person because they are in better/wearable condition than my husband’s old running shoes. by the time his shoes have gone through 2-3 rotations they have so many miles on them that they shouldn’t be worn by another person and are ground up for playground material.

Condo Blues
14 years ago

I have very tiny feet and it's a challenge to buy shoes that fit me that don't light up or have cartoon characters on them. When I find a pair of dress shoes, boots, or sandels I try to prolong their life by putting heel taps on them and then getting them resoled. My Birks have rubber soles & I've been able to get them resoled too. It doesn't completely keep items out of the waste stream but at least it cuts down on what I'm putting into the waste stream. For athetic shoes both my huband and I drop our used shoes in the bin at our local running store where they are donated to charity – usually mine because they are in better condition than my husband's. He rotates his running shoes. He'll run in Pair A for X number of miles until the shoes start to break down. He buys and trains in Pair B and Pair A are wore as his kicking around town shoes. when Pair B needs to be retired from training, he buys Pair C. Pair A are either donated/ground up for playground material or are work in the garden, etc shoes and Pair B becomes everyday wear shoes.

14 years ago

I love my Simple EcoSneaks! They are so comfy. But they have no arch support at all, so if that’s something you need, they won’t solve your problem.

Keen has fantastic shoes and I know they make some good efforts to turn out a greener product. They also make very sturdy products. I’ve had a pair of slip ons for two years now. I wear them constantly and they still look and feel great. I love walking. We don’t have a very walkable community, but I still try to whenever I can.

Beth Terry
14 years ago

@Clif — I took that photo myself, holding the camera in my right hand away from myself. Yes, it took several tries to get it right.

@islandveggie — My dad loves Birkenstocks, too, and he has the same weird feet as I. They do have plastic foam soles, but over all are pretty cool.

@monkeyjen — Just can’t wrap my head around those 100% plastic shoes, try as I might. But even TreeHugger had some arguments about their light greenness.

14 years ago

Mitigate. Tim Gunn loves that word. And I love Tim Gunn.

Remember that program from Crocs I told you about? SolesUnited – Crocs takes back all worn Crocs and grinds them up and recycles them into new Crocs for donation to shoeless peoples in 3rd world countries and such. They also sell recycled models. Yes – i realize they’re 100% plastic. At least they recycle they’re own stuff.

So if any of you have old crocs laying around – they can be turned in!

14 years ago

I like Birkenstocks. The cost a bit but last for a long long time! Plus most of them are very eco friendly :)

14 years ago

How did you get that overhead picture…was Michael shooting from a window above? Did you have your new camera tied to a balloon and on a timer?

Walking is grrrrrreat! I was thinking about that old ad line “I’d walk a mile for a Camel” and realized that a mile is really no big deal, so I think less of Abe Lincoln, too, who is supposed to have walked a mile to return a penny…or was it three miles? My sin is walking a mile to get a Dr. Pepper, but at least that’s less harmful than a Camel.

It’s the irony of the use of cars that has made us think small distances (1 – 2 miles) are very large even as we think of large distances (100 miles) as small!

One of the best parts of walking is it detaches you from the umbilicals of phones and PC (but only if you let it).

Spring is here so we all should be walking our feet off right this minute – gotta go walk, bye!