So far in this series, I have discussed what the desirable properties of a yoga mat are, and why you should avoid one made of PVC. This time around I want to discuss other materials that yoga mats can be made from.
But first, remember, there is no material that doesn’t have a cost for the environment, or animal and human health, it’s just a matter of how much of a cost. Always do a little bit of research yourself to make sure you are happy with the compromise you have to make to be a consumer of that product.
My other top-tip here is to consume less, only buy what you need, when you need it. Recognise when you are buying for other reasons. If you buy less, you will have less impact on the environment: fewer raw materials will be harvested, or processed, fewer products will be produced, and you will have less to throw away at the end of the day.
PVC is not the only plastic
Back to yoga mat materials… and PVC is not the only plastic, so watch out! Let’s have a look at some of the others.
Polymer Environmental Resin (PER) is touted as ‘clean’ PVC, or just a ‘step-forward’ for those that are more sceptical. It is still PVC, but with different additives instead of phthalates. And just like regular PVC, there are problems for the environment and human health associated with production and disposal of this material.
Another type of material you might find being made into yoga mats is Ethylene-vinyl Acetate (EVA). It is a plastic, but not based on PVC. Mostly it is constructed to act as foam rubber, with applications in craft, and padding in sports equipment and sports shoes. It hasn’t been found to have any detrimental effect on human health, however, like most plastics it doesn’t biodegrade, and I couldn’t find evidence that it is recycled.
Polyurethane (PU) is another plastic material made from fossil fuel, and like PVC, can turn its hand to many uses depending on how it is processed. It is said to be chemically inert, so there is no limit to how much you can be exposed to, and there is no evidence that exposure is harmful to human or animal health. However, to be able to turn it into wheels for your shopping cart, foam insulation panels, or a yoga mat necessitates the addition of many and varied chemicals.
On the plus side, unlike other plastics, PU does biodegrade in landfill conditions within one to five years. One major yoga mat company says that their PU mat is ‘truly planet friendly’ which I think is a bold claim for a product made from crude oil (do click on the link and watch their cute video about the history of the yoga mat though). But, you could consider PU the best of a bad bunch.
Natural rubber (not synthetic!)
You’ll be pleased to know you can find more natural alternatives to plastic! For example, rubber is one of them, as the raw material it is made from comes from trees. This raw material is a milky substance called latex that some plants produce as a response to damage by insects. Commercially, it is collected from the Brazilian rubber tree, by making incisions in the bark and collecting the liquid, which then sets, and is sent for processing. As I said, it’s a natural product, and also 100% biodegradable.
However, there are some down-sides. For example, during the processing which turns latex into rubber, chemicals are added to make the resulting material stable, strong, and durable. There are also concerns over the environmental impact and ethical values of companies harvesting, and producing natural rubber. For example, there are problems around deforestation of rainforest for rubber plantations, the use of herbicides or burning to keep the land clear, and unethical treatment of farm workers, such as the use of methamphetamines to make them work faster.
Another alternative material to PVC for making yoga mats is cork, which comes from the Cork Oak tree. To get cork the bark is gently removed from the tree when it is mature enough, usually around 25 years old. This doesn’t kill the tree, it just grows another bark skin, which can then be removed after another 9 years.
I have to say that it seems that cork is the most environmentally friendly material I have come across so far. The mixed forests that cork grows in is ecologically diverse, the denuded tree can absorb more CO2 than one not stripped, and the workers are paid fairly for their labour.
Premium products are punched straight out of the raw material once it has been cured, so there is no need for any chemical additives, making it 100% natural, and 100% biodegradable. The only slight mar to the reputation of cork, is that less pricey products are bonded with glue, or plastic, and watch out as some cork mats are backed with a plastic material to provide grip and cushioning.
Now, when you are thinking of purchasing an eco-friendly yoga mat, it is not just the material that counts. You could also consider:
- Packaging. Preferably minimal and recyclable.
- The business ethics of the company producing and selling the mat. Look out for companies that have a wider social conscience such as looking after their workers, giving back to the community, or charity donations.
- A ‘take back’ scheme for your old mat. Some yoga mat companies will take back your old mat when you are buying one of their new ones. However, find out what they will do with it!
We are all on a journey towards better sustainability, and better understanding of the environmental impact of the materials and products we buy. There is no perfect. You can only do your best. That includes researching and understanding your impact on the environment. We all have an impact, but the question is how much, and what can you do to reduce yours.
As people who do yoga, I think we can reduce our impact. First of all, only buy a new mat when you really need it. Second, consider carefully which mat you choose, and what it is made from. Third, use that mat for as long as possible, and lastly, dispose of it in an ethical manner when it has come to the end of its life.
Good luck, and do your best!