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Many coveted shoes are made possible by one special material, plastic. Shoes that promise to make us run faster and jump higher are usually made up of plastic.

According to National Geographic, 24 billion pairs of shoes were made in 2018. In the United States, consumers bought 2 billion pairs of shoes, or 7 pairs per person. Almost half of the exported footwear in the world is made of rubber or plastic, according to National Geographic.

Many shoes are made from different plastic materials, molded and sewn together to be made to fit your foot. This combination of materials, plus the sewing the glueing together makes the majority of shoes impossible to recycle. So they end up in the trash.

The rise of fashion, women in the workforce, Nike and athleticism has all brought changes to the shoe industry as we know it today. The demand for lighter, bouncier, molded materials was a perfect job for plastic.

Now that we know how harmful plastic is, many shoe manufacturers are looking for new opportunities. Plastic is not easily recycled, and it gets into oceans and landfills. Plastic breaks down into microplastics that get into oceans and disrupt the marine food chain.

Many companies recycle or reuse plastic as a solution to the plastic problem. To “recycle” plastic, often it it re-used in something else. For Adidas, it is reused in sneakers. But even recycled plastic takes work. Energy used to collect the materials and then remake them is still damaging to the environment.  Some companies, like Sevilla Smith, remove plastic from its shoes all together.

So what’s the solution? Marie Brennan, design historian at Norwich University and shoemaker said, “We’re just going to have to buy and consume a lot less.” Companies are still hard at work on innovation, but consumers need to think twice before purchasing shoes filled with plastic.

Watch the National Geographic Video About Plastic and Shoes

Read more about shoes in One Green Planet, including Will Smith and Leonardo DiCaprio Team Up to Raise Funds For The Amazon Rainforest! and Adidas is Making Sneakers Out of Plastic Ocean Waste!

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