The yoga mat is by far the most iconic and foundational of all yoga gear. The majority of yogis wouldn’t consider practicing without one, and global demand is now estimated at an eye-popping 36-million mats purchased each year. This enormous appetite costs yogis about 1.2 billion USD annually, but the true cost can’t be summed up in dollars alone. Producing, using and disposing of so many mats also takes a heavy toll on our planet, something many practitioners are totally unaware of.
In this article, which is part of our Can You Practice Without Plastic? global campaign (#plasticfreeyogarevolution), we help you get up to speed on some of the environmental problems yoga mats may be causing, and let you know what you can do to help.
ALL MATS REQUIRE ENERGY AND RESOURCES
If you laid out 36 million yoga mats end-to-end, you could encircle the earth 1.6 times. This fact is both staggering and true no matter what the mats are made of, or how sound the environmental practices are of their producers. The volume alone should give us pause, especially when we consider that every mat not only had to be made, but also shipped to wherever it wound up being purchased, and eventually disposed of. In our rush to find a better alternative mat, we shouldn’t forget to question whether we need one at all, something we explore a little further in What You Can Do, below.
PVC YOGA MATS: THE BADDEST OF THE BUNCH
48% of yoga mats purchased every year are made from polyvinyl chloride, aka PVC. PVC is, by many accounts, one of the most environmentally damaging consumer materials ever produced. Its production is highly energy intensive, requires cancer-causing chemicals and produces high volumes of toxic waste, including dioxin, PCBs and hexachlorobenzene. It requires more toxic additives than any other plastic, including heavy metals such as lead and organotins to stabilize PVC, chromium and cadmium to color it, and plasticizers such as phthalates to make it flexible. It involves the use of chlorine gas, a poison that also happens to require incredible amounts of electricity to produce. PVC is also extremely difficult to recycle, takes centuries to biodegrade, and leads to the release of hazardous chemicals throughout its lifecycle.
Phthalates are released throughout PVC’s life cycle — including the use phase — and have been found to damage our endocrine system in large enough doses. Many of these chemicals are now universally present in human bodies and the environment, leading to growing concerns about their cumulative negative effects. PVC production, use, and disposal are significant contributors to this growing chemical burden.
Yet, PVC has remained the most common yoga mat material for decades. This is largely because it is relatively cheap, functional, and durable, but all these qualities can be found on significantly less damaging alternatives we will explore later in this article.
NOT ALL NON-PVC YOGA MATS ARE CREATED EQUAL
PVC mats may be the worst environmental offenders, but that doesn’t mean all other mats are great. PVC-alternative synthetic mats, like EVA foam and NBR rubber, are also manufactured using chemically intensive processes, likely leach chemicals during their use phase, and are non-biodegradable. Potentially less damaging synthetics, like TPL and PU, are often proprietary mixes unique to each individual manufacturer, making it hard to know exactly what their environmental impacts might be in any given case. Even more desirable natural materials, like rubber, cork, and jute can often have negative environmental impacts such as deforestation and water contamination.
It can all be a bit dizzying, and often there will be no perfect answer. What we do know is that natural materials, like the ones listed above, are far better for the environment (as long as they aren’t using chemicals during processing) than PVC and other synthetics. Luckily for us, we have a lot of choice, with a variety of companies making eco-friendly yoga mats and new ones appearing all the time. So that takes us to what we can do as responsible yogis.
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
1. Buy less. It would be missing the point if this was not the first option for all products, let alone yoga mats. The best case scenario for our fragile planet is that no product is made, so let’s first commit to buying a yoga mat only when we truly need one.
2. If you are buying a yoga mat, know what is in it! Most importantly, avoid PVC! And don’t buy mats made from EVA foam, NBR rubber, TPL and PU either. Don’t be afraid to ask yoga mat companies about the environmental impact of their yoga mat.
3. Buy from companies that ship their mats without plastic packaging.
4. Check out the list of our favorite eco-friendly yoga mats for home practice, and travel yoga mats, which will give you all the information you need to find the best mat for you. Note, some of these companies use single-use plastic when shipping.
5. Help us find ways to recycle or repurpose old mats. We are unaware of facilities that recycle plastic yoga mats. If you do, let us know by commenting below.
6. Challenge others to practice without plastic! Share this page on your other favourite social media channels using #plasticfreeyogarevolution. Keep yoga companies accountable by posting a video unboxing of their products, using #plasticfreeyogaunbox. And join our Can You Practice Without Plastic? global campaign.
7. Share your favourite eco-friendly yoga company with us in our forum.
I hope this article helped you understand the confusing world of yoga mats. Comment below if you feel you have something to share or a question to ask!
MORE ARTICLES ON THIS TOPIC:
We will be continually updating this list, so share with us below if you have any you would like us to add.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Toxicity of Vinyl Chloride and Poly(Vinyl Chloride): A Critical Review
Life Cycle: Think Yoga is Healthy? Not on a PVC mat.
Best Yoga Mats Based on In-Depth Reviews
Ten Reasons to Avoid PVC Plastic
Center for Health, Environment & Justice
Environmental Justice and the PVC Chemical Industry
PVC Yoga Mat Safety