Dear Umbra,

I own a yoga studio and our mats are wearing out and in need of replacement. What’s the best alternative for buying new mats? And if I do get new mats, what’s the best option for disposing of the old ones: donate to one of the many organizations that provide yoga for people that can’t afford the usual yoga studio rates? Or spare them the toxins and send the mats to the landfill, or my gosh are they possibly recyclable?

Help! I’m overwhelmed by uninformed choices.

Karen Lee
Breathing Time Yoga
Pawtucket, R.I.

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Dearest Karen,

Yoga mats: they seem so soft and friendly, but they are another product for our list of Things That Contain Vinyl. Vinyl and phthalates. How I wish to never need spell phthalates again. Vinyl is toxic to the environment during production and disposal, through creation and release of dioxin — among other issues, including that it is made from a nonrenewable resource. Phthalates are “plasticizers” often found in soft vinyl materials, which do leach out during a product’s lifetime. Exposure to phthalates has been linked to negative reproductive health effects in both men and women. They cross through the placenta and can affect a fetus, so they are of particular concern to pregnant women. Pollution in People has a clear article about phthalate problems.

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Looking for your soul mat?

Photo: iStockphoto

It would be good if you could afford to replace your current mat collection with new, ecologically preferable mats. I can’t say for sure that you are poisoning yourself or your students, but we can say that yoga mats are probably one among many sources of phthalate exposure in your lives. Don’t get down on yourself. I don’t think there has been much alternative to the regular old mat until recently. Now I find many manufacturers offering PVC-free options, usually made of jute and rubber.

Here’s what I suggest, based on some knowledge and some ignorance. Simply entering “eco yoga mat” or “yoga mat and environment” into a search engine will summon the wide array of available mats. Every eco-mat has its own personal consumer narrative, in which the manufacturer explains why you should care and pay the extra money to get the mat. Read the narrative and compile a list of those without PVC and/or plasticizers.

Here’s where my ignorance comes in: can you, as a yoga business, ask each manufacturer to send you one mat at a discount as a sample? I figure, how can they expect you to purchase 30 expensive new mats that are unproven in performance? I bought one of the early eco-mats a few years ago and it shredded within months, covering the studio floor in green specks. I assume the manufacturer has improved upon that product’s terrible performance, but maybe not. It would be fun to buy a variety of new mats and have your students thrash them about a bit. If you don’t want to or can’t buy a variety starter pack, maybe you have a yoga teacher message board you could poll for performance reviews?

Your old mats are not recyclable. They are reusable, but you outline a clear dilemma. Should you pass on free mats to people who will then be exposed to the phthalates, or should you hasten the vinyl’s trip to the landfill/incinerator and release the next batch of dioxin? How about this: Find your new eco-mats. Throw out the old PVC mats. Explain to your students what you have done and why, and ask them to join you in a small fundraiser to buy eco-mats for the nearby place that provides cheap yoga.