Heels, boots, sneakers, loafers, slip-ons, name the occasion, and there's a shoe to match. Shoes are easy to love, and it’s sad to see your favorite pair of shoes become old, damaged, or no longer fitting our style preference. Thankfully, upcycling offers many ways to give new life to old shoes. In this article, we share a handpicked collection of great ways to upcycle shoes that you can try at home.
Why should you upcycle shoes?
There are many ways to deal with items we no longer want. We can throw them in the trash, recycle them, or compost them. Recycling is the most practical and eco-friendly option out of all three for shoes. Yet, recycling often divides into recycling, upcycling, and downcycling.
Recycling involves properly sending the item to a facility that can handle the mixed materials in shoes so that the recycling processes can turn them into new material. Upcycling and downcycling involve a lot of DIY to make an item useful for other purposes. Shoes are often made of layers of many different materials, which presents a recycling challenge.
Few shoe recycling facilities can handle the wide variety of shoe types out there. So, upcycling is the next best thing. Otherwise, the shoes will end up in landfills - where the plastic in them just sits for hundreds of years, polluting the environment.
Also, whatever metal, textiles, wood, and leather are used to make them goes to waste. If one pair of shoes doesn't seem like a big deal, think of the 200 million shoes people throw away yearly1.
Related: For more upcycling info, check out our tips for upcycling clothes and a list of clothing brands using upcycled materials. And when it does come time to buy new shoes, you'll find our guide to sustainable shoe brands to help you select new shoes that are better for the planet.
How to upcycle your old shoes
Below are some upcycling ideas with links to tutorials so you can learn.
1. Replace the damaged part
One of the first things to consider is salvaging the still good part of the shoe and replacing the damaged part. The good thing is that you can replace the top of the sole or even small parts like buckles and straps. If you are up to the challenge, you can give your shoe an entirely new look, as in the tutorial below.
2. Paint the shoes
Painting is one of the popular options to upcycle flats, but you can paint any shoe. You can use acrylic or spray paint for this project, depending on the effect you want to achieve. Using acrylic is an excellent idea if you want a very artsy design, and spray painting is better for geometric patterns.
3. Glitterize them
Glittering works great for shoes with suede or fabric surfaces. If you want to work on leather shoes, you'll have to scrape away the smooth, shiny surface. You only need a glitter bond, a paintbrush, and paper tape for this project.
The tape is for creating patterns and protecting areas you want untouched. The steps are simple: apply the bond on the desired area with the paintbrush and pour on the glitter. Given upcycling efforts are also better for the environment, choose eco-friendly glitter to avoid plastic waste and pollution, as most conventional glitter is a plastic-based product.
4. Add bows
Bows can improve the look of shoes that you feel no longer measure up to standard but are otherwise in perfect condition. You can get already-made bows or make some yourself. The bows can be large for extra flounce or small for a more delicate approach. You can be done with this DIY in minutes.
5. Dye the shoes
One of the easiest things to do to upcycle a pair of suede or fabric shoes is to dye them. You can dye leather shoes, too; it just takes a little bit more effort. Besides chemical-based dyes, people use Kool-Aid, turmeric, and henna as more natural alternatives.
6. Add sequins
Adding sequin to old shoes can deliver that couture look if your style has changed into a shinier and bolder fashion. You'll be doing some gluing and sewing, trying to use this method. Find a detailed guide with all the additional information you'll need in Maegan Tintari’s blog.
7. Wrap with fabric
Possibly, the most commonly used upcycling method is covering the outer surface of the shoe with fabric. With a lot of patience, this method can deliver an entirely new-looking pair of shoes with just the glue and fabric of your choice.
8. Add crystals
One of the options available to upcycle old shoes is to bedazzle them with crystals. These come in many different sizes, shapes, and colors. You can cover the shoes fully or partially depending on the extent of damage and the look you are going for.
9. Add embroidery patches
One of the things you can do to upcycle shoes with holes, stains, or really bad scratches is to glue on an embroidery patch. These patches come in all kinds of designs, so you have quite the room to get creative.
10. Add flowers
One of the many options that people popularly choose when upcycling shoes is to glue artificial flowers on them. If you are taken with the idea, you can add pearls and charms for good measure. The great thing about this method is that it does require a special surface; all you need is strong glue.
11. Turn flip flops into cute scarf espadrilles
Breathing new life into tired flip-flops can be a delightfully innovative project, adding a unique personal touch to your ensemble. Transform your humble old sandals into chic scarf espadrilles - much more insouciant and eye-catching than your average summer footwear.
Related: Eco-friendly flip flops.
12. Upcycle Thrift Shop Heels
Overlooked treasures can often be found in the form of second-hand heels at your local thrift store. Upcycle your thrift shop high heels, breathing new life into them with creativity and a touch of sustainable flair.
Upcycling your shoes may take some work and time, but you can do it if you are ready to choose what's best for the planet.
Opinion Matters. 22 BILLION PAIRS OF SHOES ARE DUMPED INTO LANDFILL EACH YEAR (pdf), 2020