Ask Pablo: What Is the Best Environmental Choice for Yoga Mats?

rolled up yoga mats

 Jamie Grill / Getty Images

Dear Pablo: I have noticed that a lot of yoga mats are made from PVC. Isn't that bad? What should I look for in a healthy, planet-friendly yoga mat?

Each year thousands of PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) yoga mats are sold in the US, a number that is growing with the increased interest in yoga and healthy lifestyles. This choice in material, however, is contradictory to the desire for a healthy planet that many yoga enthusiasts share and it can have serious health consequences for the communities in which they are produced and upon their ultimate disposal. This chlorinated compound is responsible for elevated cancer rates in certain parts of the world where PVC production facilities are located. Releases of dioxin, pthalates, furans, and other persistent organic pollutants are released into the air and find their way into drinking water. During their use, PVC products also off-gas harmful gases, creating that "new car smell" that so many people derive a false pleasure from. After the user abandons the practice of yoga or moves on to a new mat the PVC mat may be sent to a landfill, where it will sit for thousands of years, or even worse, and incinerator, where it will release more of the noxious and toxic gases described earlier. Each kg of PVC requires roughly 17 kg of abiotic materials, mostly petrochemicals. Each kg of PVC also uses around 680 liters of water in its manufacture (including power plant cooling water) and it requires 11.6 kg of air, which is converted into greenhouse and other gases. A 3 pound (1.36 kg) PVC yoga mat requires 23 kg of petrochemical and mineral inputs, uses 925 liters of water, and 15.8 kg of air.

What Other Materials Are Yoga Mats Made From?

Some companies produce a yoga mat that is made from jute, a natural and rapidly renewable fiber, and PER (Polymer Environmental Resin), a synthetic material that is said to biodegrade in a landfill over time. Since PER is not widely used it is difficult to determine its lifecycle impact.

Natural rubber from the rubber tree is another renewable and sustainable material. JadeYoga has sold over 500,000 of their natural rubber yoga mats. The company promises to plant a tree for each yoga mat they sell.

TPE (thermoplastic elastomer) is a synthetic rubber that has a high potential for recyclability although and requires less energy to manufacture than other materials with similar properties. Each kg of TPE requires roughly 5.7 kg of abiotic materials, mostly petrochemicals. Each kg of TPE also uses around 146 liters of water in its manufacture and it requires 1.7 kg of air, which is converted into greenhouse and other gases. A 4 pound (1.81 kg) TPE yoga mat requires 10.3 kg of petrochemical and mineral inputs, uses 264 liters of water, and 3 kg of air.

Organic cotton is a good choice for many reasons. It is a rapidly renewable resource that can biodegrade quickly and does not contain any potentially harmful chemicals. Conventional cotton uses a large percentage of the world's biocides and requires defoliants prior to harvesting. Its cultivation spread rapidly during the industrial revolution and it is now responsible for a large part of global water pollution in rivers and coastal areas. While still using agriculturally viable land that could be used for food production, organic cotton is a less environmentally harmful material to use in a yoga mat. Each kg of conventional cotton requires roughly 8.6 kg of abiotic materials, mostly petrochemical fertilizers and biocides, which would be much lower in organic cotton. Each kg of conventional cotton also uses around 7000 liters of water in its cultivation. A 4 pound (1.81 kg) cotton yoga mat may require up to 15.6 kg of petrochemical and mineral inputs and uses 12,670 liters of water.

What Other Impacts Should We Consider?

Regardless of the material type, the largest impact from these various yoga mats may actually come from transportation distance and mode. In all cases the raw materials and/or the final product have traveled a great distance to reach the consumer. If 23 kg of oil is brought from the Middle East to the Gulf Coast to make 1.36 kg of PVC for the yoga mat the emissions from shipping may be much larger than shipping a 1.8 kg organic cotton mat from India. Shipping of the raw materials for the PVC to the US and the final product to the customer could result in greenhouse gas emissions over 7 kg, whereas it would be over 2.5 kg for the TPE mats, around 1.5 kg for the PER/Jute mats, and less than 1 kg for the organic cotton mats.

So, the overall greenhouse gas emissions for the PVC mat, including transportation and production, would be over 23 kg. The TPE mat would be responsible for greater than 5 kg of GHGs, and the organic cotton mats would release around 1 kg.