By Becky Roozen Published Sep 27, 2004 at 5:16 AM

{image1}The soles are wearing thin, plastic has emerged the cushiony heel leaving blisters behind and the laces are looking more like shredded beef than anything else. So it's time for new tennis shoes, but don't toss out the old pair that has led you across miles of sidewalks, hills and wooded trails.

"Runners are avid recyclers," says recycling specialist, Mary Bengsch. "They never throw their own tennis shoes away because it doesn't feel right."

And Bengsch has an environmental-friendly option for those who hate parting with their athletic shoes, or anyone else who has them lying around the house.

Nike and the National Recycling Coalition partnered over 10 years ago to promote the Reuse-a-shoe program, and now Milwaukee is taking part. And both the earth and one lucky Milwaukee Public School will benefit.

"We need to collect 5,000 pairs (by next June) and ship them back to Nike in Portland, Ore., (where) they grind them up, send the material back, and we'll resurface a playground," says Bengsch.

She says they have not yet chosen the school that'll receive the new playground, but it'll be one that's already scheduled to be renovated. And that won't be for a while.

In the meantime, Milwaukee citizens must donate another 4,000 pairs of sneakers for the program to be successful. Since the June 8 kickoff, about 1,000 pairs have been contributed.

There are drop-off sites dispersed throughout the city. For a list of them, visit Bengsch says there are about 22 sites so far, a majority at city hall complexes and the Wisconsin Athletic Club. Four shoe stores in the Shops at Grand Avenue will probably have bins, too, by the end of September.

Bengsch is also in the process of recruiting local schools to help. "One of our major partners in this program is the Milwaukee Public School system, because they are going to benefit from this playground," says Bengsch. "So we want to get the kids involved."

Another goal is to use this effort as a learning tool for teachers. "There's an entire curriculum on this program, and they can teach the benefits of it," Bengsch says.

And once that first playground is resurfaced, there's no stopping. Bengsch plans to keep this initiative alive in Milwaukee and hopes do at least three or four.

"The city of Milwaukee, our recycling program has been a successful program, but it's been kind of stagnant the last few years," she says. "We're hoping to create an awareness to wake people's recycling habits up."

For those interested in donating their old sneakers to the Reuse-a-shoe program, please make sure athletic shoes are being tossed in the bin, nothing else. Shoes should have no metal eyelets, cleats or spikes, either. And although Nike runs the show, any brand is appreciated.