It might come as a surprise to you, as it certainly did to me, that although yoga appears to be linked to harmony with the natural world, and environmentally friendly living, the one piece of equipment that all of us use – the yoga mat – is none of this.
That is because the majority of yoga mats are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). I’ll discuss the sustainability of this material, and the health implication of using it for humans and the natural environment, so that you can be better informed when it comes to choosing an eco-friendly yoga mat.
And, got an old mat? Find my tips below for repurposing your old mat when it simply can’t get through another class.
So, let me start with PVC. PVC is made from fossil fuels, which, admittedly, are natural, but they are not sustainable, and have a negative impact on the environment when processed, used, and disposed of. This is the obvious reason not to use PVC, but have you heard of phthalates, or dioxins, or considered what happens to your yoga mat when you are finished with it?
Three reasons not to use PVC (in anything!)
No. 1. So as not to contribute to the continued use of phthalates
PVC has a wide application. It can be rigid, like the pipes and window frames in your house, or soft and flexible like your yoga mat or shower curtain. This flexibility is achieved through the use of plasticisers, which are mostly phthalates. Heard of them? If so, not in a good way, I can assure you.
The majority of phthalates produced are for plasticising PVC. The problem with phthalates is that that they aren’t bound to the PVC and can leach into the atmosphere, and contaminate the environment. We are exposed to leached phthalates as gases, or dust, which we inhale, or absorb through our skin. But the main way phthalates end up inside our bodies is through our diet, because they are everywhere! ‘Ubiquitous’ is the word that I read many times doing research for this blog.
These chemicals consistently have a bad press, but really the science isn’t conclusive about what impact they are having on us. They are classified as endocrine disrupters which means they have a negative impact on the hormonal system of humans and animals. There are many chemicals that have been classified as endocrine disruptors, the worst of these cause tumours, birth defects, and problems with development in living organisms.
Not all endocrine disrupters have such an extreme impact, and those that do have been banned, but controversy remains over the use of the remaining chemicals, with no conclusion yet from the scientific community as to how safe they are.
So, by the sound of it, trying to avoid PVC, and the continued use of phthalates, is a good thing for your own health, and the health of the natural world.
No. 2. Stop the formation of micro plastics
Another problem with PVC is that it can take 100 years, at best, to biodegrade. Whilst this happens it weathers, and cracks, and micro particles are released into the environment.
These micro plastics, as they are known, are tiny pieces of plastic less than one centimetre in length. Of course, these particles are a pollutant, but the problem is further compounded by the fact that they soak up persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and the resulting mix is inadvertently eaten by birds, animals, and marine creatures. In turn, the chemicals involved make their way up the food chain to those at the top. That’s us, unfortunately. They accumulate in our fatty tissues, as they take a long time to be eliminated, if ever.
Less PVC means less micro plastics, which can only be a good thing!
No. 3. You won’t have to worry about what happens when you are done with it.
In theory, PVC can be recycled, and up to seven times at that. But in practice, it just doesn’t happen at a local level in the UK. I have asked both Hampshire County council, and Southampton City council about recycling PVC yoga mats, and they have yet to come back to me. When they do I will let you know what they say.
A lot of work has been done on an industrial level through VinylPlus, the voluntary sustainable development programme of the European PVC industry. VinylPlus is encouraging the industry to clean up its act with regard to recycling, the use of additives (like phthalates), sustainability, greenhouse gas emissions, and energy and resource use. The industry is moving towards a low-carbon circular economy, which aims for very little new plastic to be produced, and as much recycling as possible.
Despite these aims, at the end of a PVC yoga mat’s life at the moment, it will generally be sent to landfill, or get incinerated. I’ve talked about the problem of microplastics forming as PVC biodegrades, but incineration causes different problems.
PVC forms dioxins when incinerated. Nope, I hadn’t heard of them either. Dioxins are one of these POPs, which I mention previously that make their way up the food chain to lodge in our fatty tissue.
Like with phthalates, it is not clear exactly what effect dioxin has on animals and humans, or even if there is any. From animal studies, and accidental exposure incidents, it is concluded that dioxin is a probable carcinogen, and possibly has negative effects on the immune, endocrine, reproductive, and nervous systems of animals and humans.
There is a glimmer of hope. The formation of dioxins associated with incineration has reduced greatly; the World Health Organisation monitors POP levels, which they say are declining as a whole. In a large part this is due to the Stockholm Convention: in 2001 183 states, plus the EU, pledged to stop the production and use of POPs, and to ensure that any such waste is disposed of so that it doesn’t contaminate the environment.
Let’s do our bit too, and not buy any more PVC yoga mats.
So, it seems there are many good reasons to stay away from PVC for your own health, and the state of the environment.
Of course, this material has its advantages. It is mass produced, which makes the end products cheaper, which it turn gives better accessibility. For example, uPVC window frames gives the possibility of double glazing homes, and therefore warmth and comfort, to the majority of the UK population. If made well PVC is also long-lasting, so those frames, but also plumbing pipes and your yoga mat won’t need upkeep, or replacing for a long time. Indeed, some PVC yoga mats are marketed as a ‘mat for life’.
So, if you choose to go with PVC these are my tips:
- invest as much as you can afford to get a mat that is made from top quality materials so that it will last your lifetime at least, if not more
- considering that there is a sustainability scheme that covers PVC made in Europe, it could make sense to look for EU material, so that you know you are buying PVC that is as safe as possible
- invest in a mat that will stand the test of time; choose a dark colour (so dirt doesn’t show up as much), and a classic design (if you are the sort of person who likes the newest fashion, please don’t buy PVC if you know you will get sick of it and want to replace it the following year!).
Now, I hope I haven’t made you feel guilty about your PVC mat. This is not my aim, I have many PVC mats. If you have one too, I think the most important thing to do is accept that it has been made, and bought, so use it for as long as possible.
When it has reached the end of its life as a yoga mat, you might be lucky and find that the recycling of them has increased, but if not, get out your scissors, and get creative. Here are my ideas with what to do with an old mat, I’d love to hear yours!
- Cut down to use as a travel mat (make it the exact length and width of your down dog)
- Around the house – under rugs to stop them slipping, as tea coasters, or place mats, as surface protectors under pot plants, as a non-slip mat in the bathroom, to place dirty shoes on by the door.
- For pets – make the pet bed a little softer and cosier, pet place mat for messy eaters
- In the garden – use as a kneeling mat when weeding (thanks to my mum for this one)
- Out and about – one-person waterproof picnic mat, thin portable cushion (for hard seats at the football).
I hope that has given you some more information on how to choose an eco-friendly yoga mat, why it could make sense to avoid PVC, and what to do with your old mat so that it doesn’t end up getting incinerated or sent to landfill.
Next time… other materials that your yoga mat could be made from.