I recently took a trip to Roatan, a tiny island north of Honduras, which is a little slice of paradise. The beaches were idyllic…except for the plastic pollution. In areas that weren’t scrupulously maintained I saw every form of that noxious substance imaginable: water bottles, shampoo containers, a flip-flop, even a yoga block. It was hard to fully enjoy this picturesque spot when its natural beauty was marred by man-made, environmentally indefensible, products.
By now we’re all familiar with the sobering statistics about how many hundreds of years it takes plastic to decompose—water bottles take about 450 years to biodegrade, for example. Less familiar may be the fact that recycling is not the answer—it is cheaper for companies to make plastic items from scratch than to use recycled materials. And recycled plastics have limited purposes. Water bottles do not get recycled into new plastic bottles, for example. Sure, some clothing, personal accessories such as bracelets or phone cases, and even picnic tables are made from recycled plastics. But the demand for such items is minuscule compared with the staggering amount of recycled plastics available for use.
Not to mention that the planet doesn’t need more stuff. And because of less-than-perfect recycling practices (think plastics blowing out of recycling containers, failure to recycle, contaminating whole loads of recyclable material with foodstuffs, to name just a few) a great deal of plastic still ends up in oceans and landfills or incinerated. Plastic in oceans isn’t just an eyesore, it’s a death sentence to marine life, and we ingest plastics when we consume fish and seafood. Just look at the increasing number of news stories reporting whales washing up dead, reports indicating they were filled with 50 to 80 pounds of our plastic waste.
Landfills are full to the brim with plastics that aren’t going to go away anytime soon, and the toxic fumes from burning plastics merely adds to our atmospheric and health woes.
So, plastic is basically no good: Consider that more than 60 million plastic water bottles are thrown away in the U.S. every day—that’s one country, and just one day. Even items that aren’t single-use are still a problem in terms of their life cycle—they will all be around long after we’ve completed our last vinyasa class. Picture your reusable plastic water bottle joined by millions of others just like it in a mountain of immovable trash. Unlike plastics, when natural materials decompose they actually put nutrients back into the ecosystem. Isn’t it time to practice what we preach in terms of loving-kindness and look at how to keep our yoga practice plastic-free? Here are a few ways that speak to me, and hopefully to you as well.
When purchasing a mat, whether for yourself or your studio, take a careful look at its composition. All-natural rubber mats, which are sourced from trees, are better than plastic ones, but it still takes about 50 years for rubber to decompose. Consider cork or ones made of jute.
Foam yoga blocks are cheap and lightweight (i.e., forgiving if you drop one on yourself or a gorgeous floor). They’ll probably last a lifetime—and that’s the problem. They are made from polyurethane, which is associated with harmful emissions. Yoga blocks made from cork, bamboo, or wood are a more sustainable choice.
Straps are ubiquitous props. Just pay attention to the buckle. I prefer metal rings (most metals are recycled more easily than plastic) to avoid the plastic in the buckle—I shudder to think of a mountain of plastic buckles from yoga straps hanging around hundreds of years from now.
Have you thought about what your bolster is filled with to make it so supportive and pillow-like? There’s a good chance that it is stuffed with polyester, aka plastic fill—and that’s a shame, because there are some fabulous, natural alternatives. Try those filled with buckwheat, lavender, or flaxseed. Or, get creative: At my yoga studio we sewed our own bolsters and filled them with hand-me-down (clean) T-shirts. Talk about reducing our impact and reusing previously loved items!
I hope you really, really love that polyester fleece top. Or spandex tank top. Or those nylon pants. Because chances are they’ll be with you for years—decades, even. So you might as well use them until the very end. And then, when buying new clothes, avoid those made with synthetic textiles. Be on the lookout for sustainably grown bamboo, hemp, linen, organic cotton (although cotton is resource-heavy to produce in terms of water and land), and lyocell, which is made from eucalyptus trees in a closed-loop system. As you shop, pay attention to what the fabric is composed of and how it is made. If you’re not sure, ask questions and do your own research.
Glass, steel, and aluminum have much greater reuse and recycling potential than plastic bottles, so invest in these materials instead. Even if you are reusing a plastic water bottle, it will eventually end up somewhere and pose a problem in terms of decomposition: Just say no to plastic water bottles, period. There are plenty of choices out there—all we have to do is stop before we shop to make sure we are availing ourselves of the best options.
If you have long hair you probably tie it back before taking a class, right? Is there plastic in your hair tie? Try for all-cotton hair ties or a bamboo hair wrap. What is lurking in that yoga towel? How about your post-yoga shower gel? Read the labels of everything and if you need inspiration for what to switch to, check out online plastic-free shops (I like Package Free Shop and Life Without Plastic). It’s amazing how many new and innovative plastic-free products are now available.
If you offer trainings or are responsible for marketing for studios, take a look at your “school” supplies. Are you still using plastic binders, pens, and file folders? Green office supplies exist (Onyx and Green have some wonderful options), and they are great! Imagine a binder or clipboard made from recycled wood pulp, paper and writing pads from sugar cane, and pens from compostable materials. Use old-fashioned paper file folders instead of plastic ones, and consider offering digital copies of handout materials instead of defaulting to binders and paper.
Yes, the cost of non-plastic options can be higher. And that can seem prohibitive. But remember that the alternatives are well-made and durable, and reusing items is possible. Consider the cost of cleaning up our plastic pollution mess—which is much higher than the cost of all-natural materials. And ask yourself how much “stuff” you really need—minimizing our use of materials of any sort lessens our carbon load, which is definitely a great thing for the planet.
Plastic is everywhere, and we’ve grown so accustomed to seeing and using it that we don’t always stop to consider its impact and the possibility of not using it, the possibility that we actually have choices. By being mindful about our plastic consumption, we can take our practice off our mats and throw some yogic love and compassion toward the oceans, earth, and future generations. It takes compassion, empathy, and knowledge and can be seen as the ultimate expression of ahimsa to the Earth that sustains us all.