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Around the world, discarded tires tread again

About the author

Ken is a freelance writer and editor who resides in suburban Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A former newspaper reporter and magazine editor, Ken has more than 25 years of editorial and communications experience.

In Kenya, recycled tires become tough, inexpensive sandals called akalas

In Kenya, discarded tires become tough, inexpensive sandals called akalas. (Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images)

It may seem incongruous to think of discarded rubber car tires as the source of fetching but functional footwear or fashion-forward furniture.

But from Kenya to India to Detroit to Sweden, clever and eco-minded niche entrepreneurs are turning one of industrialized society’s most ubiquitous and difficult-to-dispose-of waste products (an estimated 1.5 billion tires are discarded each year worldwide) into weirdly appealing – and super-tough – items with a little bit of, um, soul.

Enterprising locals in Kenya have made a cottage industry out of hand-crafting so-called akala sandals from the “pelts” of old car tires. They sell on the streets of Nairobi for anywhere from $2 to $5 a pair – considerably less than retail footwear sold nearby, and boasting 10 times the longevity.

In fact, Maasai tribesmen, who roam southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, have commonly worn these durable sandals – also known as “thousand-milers” – for decades to walk through brush tougher than rhino hide. And the footwear is trending mainstream as you read this, at e-tailers like Maasai Treads and Akala Sandals and soleRebels, whose $80 "tooTOOs" womens shoes, which feature outsoles made of hand-cut discarded tire treads, are pictured above.

Then there is Detroit Threads, where the Reverend Faith Fowler ripped a page from the thousand-miler pagebook. At Cass Community Social Services in Detroit, she employs dozens of workers who turn old tires – the group’s Green Industries division collects about 35,000 discards a year – into $25 flip-flops with some serious tread life. Aimed at urban hipsters who are tired of the same old look, the sandals are designed by students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.

In Mumbai, India, ground-floor entrepreneur Anu Tandon Vieira established The Retyrement Plan, where workers morph old tires and other recycled waste materials into weatherproof outdoor furniture that will inflate the ambience of any patio or three-season room.

On a whole other plane, a Swedish company, Apokalyps Labotek, is making durable and stylish flooring out of the 4m tires discarded nationally there each year. The company grinds the tires into a powder and through some sort of modern alchemy, mixes it with recycled plastic and – voilà! – creates parquet flooring as tough as a thousand-miler sandal. Tread lightly? No way.

Now, it’s true that Bridgestone and other tire companies are trying to develop an airless, recyclable tire that would end the disposal dilemma posed by rubber tires, which are tougher to get rid of than a Volkswagen Beetle. But rest easy – there’s no need to rush out and stock up on akalas. It’s estimated that billions of old car tires remain stockpiled around the world, so this is one recyclable resource that’s not disappearing any time soon.

In Kenya, recycled tires yield tough, inexpensive sandals called akalas

Kenyans commonly refer to akala sandals as "thousand-milers". (Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images)

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These shoes from e-tailer soleRebels feature hand-cut outsoles made from discarded tires.

From e-tailer soleRebels, the $80 "tooTOOs" shoe. (soleRebels.com)