Sunday, July 24, 2011

Outdoor-sports: A green audit.

Most of us involved in outdoor sports take an interest in environmental or green issues. That paddlers, climbers, surfers, skiers, hikers et al are environmentally conscious, seems to be accepted as axiomatic.
 Despite these stated environmental concerns there is often a juxtaposition in our revealed behaviour, myself included.

Now far from intending to bore you with the platitudes of my naval gazing, I think that my anecdotal ‘green audit’ has some value. Firstly, we normally all agree that initiating newcomers into outdoor lifestyles is pressingly important in our ever increasingly nature-disconnected lifestyles. Furthermore, the assumption is that if people develop an interest in the outdoors the spinoff will naturally be a concern for conservation and the environment. For the most part I strongly agree with this postulate but am sceptical of any claims to an unquestionable, minimized environmental footprint from this consciousness.

Secondly I want to briefly contrast the footprints of my two main outdoor passions one considered ‘non-consumptive’ – kayaking, and the other -
 hunting, considered ‘consumptive’ of the environment (and nothing short of an environmental crime by some who espouse green-living ideals).

I will touch on three areas of comparison and perhaps it will motivate you to reflect, if you already haven’t, on these issues . An important caveat: I am not out to sully the sports or lifestyle of anyone or any activity. This is simply an open and critical admission based on my reality and observations. Both kayaking and hunting have been central to my life and ideology for a long time. The lessons they have taught me are invaluable and the places and people they have introduced me to have often been life changing.

1) Materials: I have a veritable heap of duffel bags filled with years worth of river gear. Between the boats, paddles, dry gear, base layers and rescue equipment is a bewildering array of not-too-friendly-to-the-environment materials. Polyethylene, polypropylene, polyvinyl chloride, fibreglass, carbon fibre, resins, epoxy’s, foams, acrylics, polyurethane, volatile organic compounds and so on. My breathable dry gear contains PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene) which requires toxic PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) to produce it. Simply put, a plethora of synthetics that may be toxic to produce at some point, may take centuries to degrade and may cause a host of problems when discarded.

My hunting gear certainly contains some synthetics but not nearly as much. Most of my equipment is also bound to last a very, very long time (see point 2).

To be fair there has been an acknowledgement of this materials problem and steps to mitigate its impact. Innovation of non-toxic synthetics, experimental Sphingomonas bacterial plastic decomposition and the use of naturals seem to have grown in popularity. Replacing old smelly polypropylene base layers with wool is now commonplace as is, for example, reverting to wood in place of carbon or glass fibre parts (e.g. paddles). However, we must be thorough in our evaluation of synthetics vs. naturals and be aware of the materials life cycle and overall footprint before proclaiming naturals to be vastly superior. The reason for this is that opportunities to recycle old outdoor gear are now more available (but shipping large gear to recycling collection point still remains a challenge). From meager research it appears that many recycled synthetics are not as bad as I thought (and help keep those useless little water bottles out of the pacific gyr). Fleece is apparently not the environmental pariah some think it is, especially when made from said plastic bottles. However the reality, at least to me, appears to be that outside of small soft items deposited into in-store drop boxes, much outdoor gear remains un-recycled when defunct, living in the large synthetic heaps we begin to accumulate. Or it is sent into the garbage. We need some commitment to longevity and recycling; which brings me to my next point.

2) Longevity and replacement fads: Lets face it, as outdoors sports people many of us are gear-heads. This year’s playboat, snowboard or bike; we love to replace our gear with the new models, while telling ourselves this is the ONE, the design I have finally been waiting for, the last one I’ll ever need…until next spring that is! Amongst hunters there certainly is a segment that seems to chase new gear, new camo patterns, new packs etc. but for the most part replacements don’t appear nearly as frequent. Some archers perhaps tend more towards ‘gear-headism’ as the technology moves rapidly within that discipline but a well-cared for bow will do its operators bidding for many years.

A lot of hunting gear also lasts for many years. I have used rifles well over a half a century old that could still do another 50 years. Optics of decent quality can easily see you through 20 plus years in the field. I am not sure when last I saw a 10 year old kayak on the river and how many 20 year old skis do you see on the hill?

Granted, many outdoors people do care for and use their gear, like packs and tents, for many years but the institution of high frequency cyclical consumption is deeply entrenched in our ‘eco’ outdoor sports. Hunting exists in the same market structures but in my experience the replacement rates due to wear and tear, as well as market trends, tends to be much slower. I have owned and replaced far more pieces of river gear than hunting gear per unit of equivalent time, some of it worn out, a good deal of it simply wilfully phased out in favour of newer and better.

3) Travel: This is the 800 pound Gorilla in the room. To quote a journalist and outdoorsman friend of mine from many years ago “we all express concern for the environment but gleefully load our new mountain bikes onto our SUV and drive 500km for a weekend of riding”. I drive a lot to scratch my paddling itch, a lot. In my case this is largely a function of geography. Where I currently live I am 235km (one way) from the nearest piece of useable whitewater and that is often a day trip for me. The distances increase markedly from there. I do it because it’s important to me but the nagging issue of my energy usage is ever present. Of course we car-pool, with friends whenever possible but my point remains – this fact represents significant levels of consumption from my non-consumptive sport. Most of my hunting is done well within 100km of my house, with one area a scant 40km away. Of course some hunters regularly drive long distances and other paddlers (or kite-boaders etc.) can enjoy their sport out of their back doors. In my experience though, many of us in the outdoor sport community rack up significant petro-miles.

It’s unfortunate that I often hear how hunters are not environmentally concerned (disputed by this recent  article). This accusation has on many occasions stemmed from someone in the outdoor sport community who would readily proclaim their eco-consciousness. While most of my closest friendships have been borne from time shared with my outdoor sport companions in the bush or on the water, I am not afraid to offer this critique. Self-reflection, honest critique and informed discussion are the corner stones are broadening our knowledge. From my perspective I would have an awfully tough time trying to convince myself that my ‘consumptive’ hunting has a greater environmental impact than my great love of kayaking.

Plastic Purge: The Great Plasticky Outdoors 

© Brian Joubert


  1. Hunting is something that exists in the same market structures. But, in my experience the replacement rates due to wear and tear, as well as market trends, tends to be much slower.

  2. I stand to be corrected on this of course but IME of working partime in an outdoor store as well, it seems hunters replace gear less frequently due to market trends that other activites. Grabted the technology in some sports has evolved rapidly, driving the market trends more agressively. It seems that archers replace gear quite fast, but thats an anecdotal observation.

  3. A thoughtful article, Brian, and I agree completely. However rudimentary, a 'green audit' really should be brought into the awareness of outdoor enthusiasts, especially those with claims of being environmentally responsible. Would be a great debate to discuss the net environmental impact of shooting a deer <1 hr from your home and consuming its meat in lieu of buying industrial meat versus a typical paddling, hiking, cycling, or international travel hobby. I think it's a perspective that generally goes unconsidered by non-hunters.

  4. Interestingly I have just recently learned that some brands - like North Face for example- are making a serious attempt at greening their raw materials and manufacturing processes.

    The one I failed to mention - down. Not always the nicest process of procurement but popular with many of us outdoors people.

  5. Interesting post, Brian.

    Ted Kerasote makes the case -- convincingly, I think -- that "consumptive" and "non-consumptive" are terribly misleading terms and should be abandoned. A bird-watcher who jets all over the world building a long "life list" is non-consumptive, but a deer hunter who hunts out her back door is consumptive? Unh-uh.

  6. It seems that archers replace gear quite fast, but thats an anecdotal observation.

  7. Reloading Equipment
    I stand to be corrected on this of course but IME of working partime in an outdoor store as well, it seems hunters replace gear less frequently due to market trends that other activites.