Most fitness pursuits these days require at least a little bit of equipment, whether it is running shoes or a bike helmet or a yoga mat or a squash racquet or a resistance band or a stability ball. The problem is, many of these things wear out, or we no longer pursue the activity, and they remain to be dealt with. And unfortunately, most of them consist of synthetic materials which do not biodegrade.
The pursuit of fitness, or even of excellence in sport, has long neglected this issue, or seen it as unavoidable. In many cases, sports started out with eco-friendly materials, then transitioned to synthetics as technology advanced. For example, the squishy synthetic cushion in the seat of a pair of bike shorts is called a “chamois” because bike shorts used to be made from wool with a pad sewn into them made of chamois leather. Racquets used to be made from wood and gut. The practices we had when these more biodegradable elements were the norm are not practices we can continue to embrace with synthetic items. When they wear out, there is an environmental impact to their disposal. Discarded synthetic fabrics offgas for centuries in landfills.
Some eco-friendly options exist now, but they are not for everyone. Few runners will be able to embrace minimalism to such an extent that they can run barefoot or in leather moccasins or huaraches. To be fair, many runners thrive in this style, but many do not. A small handful of companies create non-synthetic cycling gear, but they are pricey and hard to find. Natural racquets weigh far more than their modern carbon fiber counterparts.
The basic yoga “sticky mat” contains polyvinyl chloride, a petroleum product with all the environmental implications that entails. It does not biodegrade. In certain cases it can be recycled, but only up to seven times. A number of “eco” yoga mats these days made with PER (Polymer Environmental Resin) and TPE (Thermoplastic Elastomer) still contain synthetic materials that don’t biodegrade. The only truly biodegradable options are mats made with natural rubber and jute such as Barefoot Yoga’s Original Eco Mat, or cotton rugs. The eco-friendly options do cost a little more than the basic sticky mat, but consider the difference in cost over the number of years you will be using it, and the number of years a PVC mat will spend in landfill after that. In any case, the lowest environmental impact of all is to hang on to the mat you have now and use it for as long as you can. When it becomes unusable due to wear and tear, there are a number of options to repurpose it. Check out Gaiam’s list here.
Long-distance runners often break down the cushioning in their running shoes and need to replace them long before the uppers look worn or tattered. They can still be repurposed for general use. Check with your local running shoe store, as many accept donations of used shoes for charitable purposes. In the United States, Nike accepts shoes that are completely worn out and turns them into Nike Grind to create sport surfaces such as gym floors, courts or astroturf.
Bike helmets that meet safety standards will last a long time, but if they pass their expiry date or they cushion any impact to your head, they must be replaced. Since they can no longer be counted on to protect your head, they should not be donated or reused. They can be taken apart and some components may be recyclable depending on your municipality. More information is available at BHSI. If you want better, more sustainable options to keep your head safe, write the manufacturers and ask them to step up their game!
Today’s sporting environment has evolved in ways that do not always care for our natural environment. It is difficult to pursue many activities for sport or fitness that do not come with an ecological cost. The best you can do is try to choose eco-friendly options when you make new purchases, make them last as long as you can and find a way to repurpose or recycle them when you can no longer use them; and tell your manufacturers that you want more sustainable options to enjoy your sport.