This local footwear brand is blending shoes to build playgrounds

The company's shoes feature a blend of EVA and bio content from sugarcane, which makes them easier to clean and repurpose.

Native Shoes used to build a playground

Credit: Native Shoes. The flooring of this Lower Mainland playground is made from ground-up shoes

So far, through the Remix Project, Native Shoes has given 40,000 of its used products a second life

We recycle glass, we recycle plastic, we even recycle clothes—but have you ever wondered where your shoes end up after you’re done with them? If local footwear company Native Shoes had its way, they’d all be turned into playgrounds.  

The brand, which makes eco-friendly shoes using a naturally stretchy foam called ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA), is catering its products to “tiny activists” who are growing up as conscious consumers. EVA makes the shoes easier to clean, which is important for the brand’s sustainability initiative, the Remix Project, to give used footwear a second life.  

“We saw that we were making shoes that were durable and long-lasting, but when they came to end of life, we wanted to do something with them,” says CEO Kyle Housman, who joined Native Shoes as president in 2017. “It was actually one of our employees who came up with the idea of how to grind the shoes. He essentially researched how to build a blender, but on a much grander scale to be able to process the plastic and the rubber.” 

The original grinder sits in the basement of their headquarters in Vancouver, but the company joined forces with various local businesses to scale the process.

Shoe grinding process by Native ShoesNative Shoes. Ground shoes being repurposed

Although some furniture at head office contains ground shoes, when the team brainstormed how to best repurpose children’s footwear, playground flooring looked like a natural fit. To build it, they enlisted Surrey-based surface installer Marathon Surfaces 

READ MORE: Its a Good Thing: A growing legion of upcyclers  is turning trash into treasure

Since launching the Remix Project in 2018, the company has repurposed some 40,000 shoes and built five playgrounds in the Lower Mainland. “We take shoes back in a couple of different ways,” Housman says. “You can bring them to our Gastown store; we have a drop-off there. If they’re good enough to be cleaned and donated, we’ll do that so that they get another life with another human being. But if they’re not in a condition to be cleaned and donated, then we’ll grind them up and take them through the process. We’ll also take them back via Canada Post if you call our customer service group.” 

With 70 staff across Canada and the U.S., the company launched its latest kids’ line, Robbie Sugarlite, this year. The products are made with EVA and bio-based content from sugarcane—hence the proprietary name. With Earth Day right around the corner, now is as good a time as any to think about what footprint the things we buy leave on our planet.