An essential tool for an environmentally conscious yoga would obviously be an environmentally "conscious" yoga mat. Over the past 5 years I've written a bunch of posts on the topic (How "Eco" is your TPE Yoga Mat?" 2009, "TPE Eco Yoga Mat Review" 2011, reviewing a variety of yoga mats and mat materials. My final verdict? Rubber mats sustainably harvested are your best bet (and 99% are latex free), OR even better- mats made with rubber and recycled materials (like this Hugger Mugger mat).
Manduka eKo mat
prAna Revolution Mat and Indigena Mat
Hugger Mugger (recycled!) Mat
Halfmoon Rubber Mat
Unfortunately, rubber mats are pricier and often require more care than other mats... and many companies have caught on (or not) that "TPE" or "thermoplastic elastomer" really isn't a true "eco" solution.
What does "Biodegradable" really mean?
Before we get into what is TPE we need to remember that terms like "biodegradable", "compostable", "degradable" and even "recyclable" aren't standard terms and don't have a lot of meaning. Biodegradable and compostable are often used to mean "capable of decaying through the action of living organisms" (bacteria etc)". That said- this definition could also be used to stretch the meaning of "natural" (ie arsenic is "natural") and sometimes the individual compounds are worse apart then together. Further, there is no time limit to this statement and most municipal composting facilities on this planet won't accept your yoga mat. (similar things could be said for the rubber mat...)
Is Recycling really the solution?Recyclable is relative. Not all plastics or products can be recycled at all recycling plants. Recycling plastics are a complex process, each recycling cycle results in a lower quality, degraded plastic that has limited recycling lives.
What is a Thermoplastic Elastomer?
Until as recently as 1996, the six primary TPE types could be categorized into two generic classes, block copolymers (styrenics, copolyesters, polyurethanes and polyamides) or thermoplastic/elastomer blends & alloys (thermoplastic polyolefins and thermoplastic vulcanizates).
In addition to these TPEs, two new technologies have emerged. They are the metallocene-catalyzed polyolefin plastomers & elastomers, and reactor-made thermoplastic polyolefin elastomers
So basically, I'm not sure- a shady synthetic rubber. What I can gather from my non-chemist self: Thermoplastic elastomers are cheaper to make: basically a synthetic rubber replacement with all the rubber tensile properties without the cost and yes, a lower energy footprint in production (the only bonus). According to wikipedia (which you can take or leave) they have the "potential" to be recyclable but their rubber flexibility makes them a rare recyclable candidate.
What are "block copolymers- styrenics, copolyesters, polyurethanes, polyamides, metallocene-catalyzed polyolefin plastomers and elastomers and reactor-made thermoplastic polyolefin elastomers" ?
Essentially different molecular forms of synthetic materials derived from plastics or petrochemicals.
- Styrenics: Styrene is produced in large quantities from ethylbenzene; an organic compound made from benzene (a natural aspect of crude oil and one of the elementary petrochemicals) and ethylene that is highly flammable occurring naturally in coal and petroleum, used in the production of petrochemicals and use of ethylbenzenes have contributed to air exposure which in a short time sunlight biodegradation results in chemicals found in smog.
- Copolyesters: a modification made to polyesters (particularly PET- a type of plastic).
- Polyurethane: a polymer with organic units with urethane (carbamate) links. Clicking on the chemical rabbit hole you get chemicals involved in production such as isocyanates that can be a health hazard.
.... and my head is spinning, I give up.
Which leads us to:
Synthetic Polymers: which is essentially what we are talking about here. This category includes beauties such as PVC, nylon, Teflon and as mentioned above PET plastics. Most are created from petrochemicals and most are non-biodegradable in the "eco" sense of the word: biodegrades into organic, safe compounds (and not "biodegrades into smaller plastic parts of itself" which is often the case).
OK. Is your head spinning? Yeah me too.
OK. Is your head spinning? Yeah me too.
So. "TPE" or "thermoplastic elastomer" is NOT in fact made from natural, safe biodegradable materials. It has "plastic" as part of it's name for goodness sake! It is a less off-gassing, more energy efficient production version of the traditional PVC mats. Kinda like choosing a plastic to-go cup cuz at least it's recyclable instead of the plastic coated paper coffee cups when really you should be bringing your own mug.
Companies are spinning TPE for all they're worth though. For example only ONE of the four major companies are still using "TPE" in their product description:
1. prAna "E.C.O. Yoga Mat": "toxic-free manufacturing process", "biodegradable", PVC Free, Latex Free (why not say Gluten-free? None of which are relevant here), 100% TPE (see above for TPE definition).
2. Halfmoon Breathable Eco Yoga Mat: Made of SEBS... wait what??? What is this?
SEBS: Brand name: Kraton (like Teflon and Nylon are brand names). Styrenic block copolymers consisting of polysterene and rubber blocks. See definitions of styrenes above, re: plastic.
Back to Halfmoon eco-spin: "decompostable" (seriously, did they SEE what styrene is made of?? would you want that breaking down anywhere?).
3. Kulae tpECO Yoga Mat: These guys are tricksy, like Halfmoon, indicating it's made from "closed cell technology" which is actually a fancy way to say "foam" or "closed-cell polyurethane foam" which is a category of TPE (see above list) AND I gather why they have the "tp" in "tpECO"... Sneaky sneaky. Again, may not truly be recyclable nor biodegradable.
4. Manduka LiveON Yoga Mat: Again with the cleverness: made from "PLUSfoam". Which the website looks fancy, but I have no idea what it's made of... only that the company claims it's 100% recyclable. Which is cool... but I'd rather practice on something that is natural from the start. Keep in mind that although better than not, recycling isn't the solution (as every recycle cycle degrades the plastic- plastics cannot be recycled forever).
On top of this, TPE mats do not last as long as rubber mats, often flaking off into bits within a few months or a few years of use (depending on the frequency you practice). This means replacing your mat (either via recycling: issues stated above, or landfill) every few years at least. Reducing consumption is WAY sexier than recycling. Just sayin'.
If you already have a TPE yoga mat- consider making a different choice when (because they don't last forever) you purchase your next yoga mat. The most important part? Greenwashing exists in yoga too- be critical and ask questions!