Sustainability of yoga mats has become one of the most important features a yogi looks for when making a purchase. One of the materials most touted as an eco-friendly option is TPE.
What is TPE? Why is it sold as sustainable? In this article we address this topic in detail.
THE ADVENT OF TPE IN YOGA
It was the year 1982 and a yoga mat was marketed for the first time in the world, it was made of PVC. Today, forty years later, unfortunately PVC is still the most widely used material for making yoga mats. But the information battles of realities such as Greenpeace have now made it impossible to deny the toxicity of this plastic. The issue of PVC's environmental disaster can be briefly dismissed by quoting the words of Charlie Cray, senior research specialist at Greenpeace:
"There is no yogi in the world who can squirm into such an absurd position as companies claiming any PVC product is sustainable."
The unmasking of PVC has forced companies to find an alternative material and here comes TPE (thermo plastic elastomer).
The question arises: How can a material that has the word plastic in its name be sold as environmentally friendly?
To understand this, let's first try to clarify how TPE is made.
WHAT IS TPE?
The TPE yoga mat you're thinking of buying is made of... hard to tell. The problem starts right here. TPE is not ONE specific material, you can define TPE as a long list of various combinations of synthetic plastics and petrochemicals. In fact, TPE is a copolymer, which is an assembly of polymers (one hard plastic and one rubber-elastic).
TYPES OF TPE
The types of TPE on the market can be classified into three generic classes:
- Block copolymers:(styrenics, capolyesters, polyurethanes, and polyamides)
- Thermoplastic blends and alloys: (thermoplastic polyolefins and thermoplastic vulcanizations)
- New TPE: metallocene-catalyzed polyolefin plastomers and elastomers and reactor-produced thermoplastic elastomers.
If you would like to read a description of all types of TPE you can find them here: https://www.xpolymers.it/tpe.html in this article we will only talk about the most common one that is styrenic block copolymer also called TPE-S.
This type of TPE is made from Styrene (hard plastic part) and Butadiene (rubbery-elastic part). Styrene is made from benzene and ethylene, while Butadiene is an unsaturated hydrocarbon that is made from butane. Both substances have been officially recognized as carcinogens, styrene since 2011 and butadiene since 2000. As a general recommendation considering the very physical use of a yoga mat it is very important to understand what material we are touching and breathing during practice.
TPE USED FOR YOGA MATS
Since TPE is an umbrella that collects a long list of possible combinations of materials it is the company itself that should specify what type of TPE they have used. Writing TPE is tantamount to using a generic term because in fact the specific ingredients of the material remain obscure. Knowing which TPE is used for yoga mats is a question that has multiple answers and is only able to be given by the people who make them.
HOW LONG DOES A TPE YOGA MAT LAST?
TPE is not biodegradable, so it will last forever, however, it does not last forever in the conditions in which it is used for yoga. The TPE mat starts to lose bits after a few uses, the rubbery component also makes it unsuitable to be exposed to light because it suffers the effects of heat. Depending on how often you practice and depending on your style a TPE yoga mat should be replaced every 3-5 years.
TPE AND GREENWASHING
To summarize: TPE is a blend of plastic, petrochemical derived substances not better defined by the brands that sell it and is not biodegradable.
So why can TPE be advertised as environmentally friendly?
Unfortunately, there are no laws regulating the use of the word "sustainable" or "environmentally friendly" in advertising. The reason TPE is being touted as environmentally friendly is because there is a worse alternative (PVC). In fact, TPE requires less energy in production than PVC and is potentially recyclable, although the characteristic of being a mix of plastic and rubbery material makes TPE a less than attractive material for recycling. Plus, only 15% of the world's plastic is actually recycled, and that's mostly PET plastic, so TPE's end of life is much more likely the same as PVC's, which is the landfill where it will lie forever or be burned.
THE SUSTAINABLE YOGA MAT
If you want an eco-friendly mat, the answer cannot lie in a plastic material. Choose a mat made from a natural material such as cork, jute, hemp and above all be thorough in reading the descriptions and ask questions to the manufacturer!
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