For years, Whistler Surefoot manager Sam McDonald had been looking for a way to make use of the hundreds of used ski boot liners he deals with.
"The majority of them just got thrown away, because they're not really recyclable and they're just no use to anybody," McDonald said.
"I wracked my head for years trying to figure out how to use them, whether it be sending them back to the companies or whatever, and I just kept hitting walls."
But a chance meeting with a philanthropic customer last winter led to an innovative solution — repurposing the liners to be used as winter boots in developing countries with cold climates.
That customer was American physician and SAVEarth founder Mark Barry, in Whistler last March for a ski trip.
"I started wondering what happens to the liners when you put these new custom ones in, and (McDonald) said, 'Well, we basically throw them in the trash. They go into the landfills,'" Barry said.
"And he said 'We tried to recycle them as plastic, as this, and you know, there's just too many different materials involved,' so they weren't able to be classified in the area of recycling."
With an idea beginning to form in his head, Barry began inquiring about the volumes — how many liners per store, how many stores in the world and so on.
"I just realized that there was a huge opportunity to do something with these liners... they're very well constructed obviously, and they can clearly be very warm, and quite functional repurposed for another application," Barry said.
"So my mind started wandering. Where can we use these? Who needs them?"
The answer, Barry decided after some research, was Mongolia — where a third of the population lives below the poverty level and temperatures can get to 30 or 40 below zero.
Before long, Barry had an agreement in place with Surefoot's head office in Park City, UT, ensuring all of Surefoot's stores would ship their used liners to Barry's warehouse in Las Vegas, NV.
Once there, the liners are fitted into a durable, rubber outer shell before being shipped to where they're needed most.
Last month, Barry took 55 pairs of the winter boots to Mongolia on a pilot project.
"They're very comfortable, very functional... they were very well received," Barry said.
"Some of these people, it will take several days of earnings just to be able to afford the cheapest pair of Chinese winter boots, which everyone said were of terrible quality."
There are still some logistics to be figured out at home and abroad, but with help from foreign non-governmental agencies and the Mongolia Red Cross, Barry hopes to one day ship several thousand of the boots overseas every year.
There will be some expenses in acquiring the outer shells for the boots, but Barry is looking into government grants and other sources of funding.
"We'll see where the support and the funding is going to come from, but this project is so useful and so purposeful I almost feel like funding it myself if I can't get the other funding," Barry said.
"It's just that important and fulfilling for me personally."
And McDonald no longer has to worry about where Surefoot's liners end up.
"The feeling is phenomenal, because I'll be honest with you, one of the worst parts of my job was having to create that much waste," he said.
"It was like a weight lifted off my shoulders, man. It's so rad. I'm so happy to be able to tell people what we do with them and be proud of it, you know?"
McDonald said he's happy to take anyone's used liners if they have them lying around.
They can be dropped off at the Surefoot store in Whistler Village.
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