Recycling programs prevent outdoor gear from piling up in landfills

Outdoor companies are finding unique ways to prevent gear from ending up in landfills. Take a look at a few programs -- likely a few of many -- SNEWS discovered. We bet more are to come.
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Each day, people in the United States throw away enough trash to fill 63,000 garbage trucks, according to the Clean Air Council. The vast majority of refuse, including all types of outdoor gear, winds up in landfills. 

“I don’t think the average consumer understands what happens to all the things that go into the trash bin,” said Kim Coupounas, chief sustainability officer for GoLite.

To prevent gear from joining the huge mounds of trash at the dump, outdoor companies have launched initiatives to help consumers recycle and repair clothing and equipment. This year, GoLite launched an “I’m Not Trash” recycling program, Jetboil launched a device for recycling fuel canisters, and Chaco continues to pour resources into an in-house sandal repair department -- one that returns the shine to beloved years-old footwear. Even in Europe, Klattermusen of Sweden is a brand that has launched a program that allows its used products to be returned to retailers -- for cash.

Educating the public

Many products make their way to the landfill simply because people lack the knowledge on how or where to recycle certain things, and this has been the case with fuel canisters.

“Hundreds of thousands of fuel canisters, maybe up to a million worldwide, end up in landfills,” Chris Lussier, vice president of sales and marketing for Jetboil (www.jetboil.com) told SNEWS®. “There just hasn’t been a clear, safe and easy way to recycle them.” He said that REI and other outdoor retailers told Jetboil that their customers had been bringing canisters into stores and asking how they could dispose of them in the most environmentally friendly manner.

To reduce waste in landfills, Jetboil this month introduced the CrunchIt tool, a small device that allows people to puncture fuel canisters safely and easily so that the canisters are ready to be recycled in commercial and municipal recycling programs.

The CrunchIt tool not only allows a person to puncture a canister safely, but it also helps the people picking up recyclables on the curb recognize that a canister is good to go. “If you puncture the canister in two or three places, people picking up recyclables can easily see the canister is safe for recycling,” said Lussier.

Also, Jetboil is working on promotional programs for the CrunchIt, and this will begin with educational materials for consumers. “The first step is education, because consumers need to know how easy and safe it can be to recycle butane canisters,” said Lussier.

The company also hopes to involve retailers in the process, and it might create recycling bins for shops, so that consumers can deposit canisters in the same place they purchase them.

No need for junking

One key in getting people to recycle their gear is to make them realize that their jackets, packs and other items don’t have to become part of the trash heap. In February, GoLite launched its “I’m Not Trash” program in which it takes back any GoLite item that consumers purchase so that the products can be reused, recycled or stored for future recycling. Through its website, GoLite also offers consumers advice on how they might repair or recycle products, or where they can donate items in their local community, rather than putting stuff in the trash. Now, each GoLite product hangtag has the “I’m Not Trash” message and directs consumers toward info on repurposing or recycling their gear.

“We try to help customers prioritize,” said Coupounas of GoLite (www.golite.com). “The best option is to repair a product or repurpose it locally. There are so many local charities that accept clothing and gear. If it’s something they can’t repurpose and can’t donate locally, they can send it back to us.”

Coupounas said that the company’s sustainability task force collects the items and determines whether they can be repaired. If that’s not possible, the company donates items to non-profits, or dissects the products and ships the pieces to repurposing companies near the company’s headquarters in Boulder, Colo.

To encourage people to participate, GoLite offers those who send in items a one-time, 20-percent discount on a future purchase. “It’s a way of saying to people that we appreciate that they’re doing something good,” said Coupounas.

Reasons to recycle

It’s natural to assume that most outdoor enthusiasts would recycle their gear primarily to limit their environmental footprint. But other factors also come into play.

Some folks stretch the life of gear simply to save a few bucks. As SNEWS reported last year, the repair market has flourished since the recession, which has helped divert outdoor gear from reaching landfills. (Click here to read the March 2009 story, “Repair and care market thrives in tattered economy.”)

But some people refuse to trash their gear for sentimental reasons.

When 22-year-old Edward Snow finally blew out the webbing on his Chaco sandals, he sent them to the manufacturer to be repaired partly because he didn’t want to part with them.

“I guess there’s a sentimental value to them,” Snow told SNEWS, explaining that he’s worn the sandals every day possible for more than three years. During school, he wears them around the Montana State University campus in Bozeman, and when school is not in session, he wears them while working as a kayaking instructor for Back of Beyond in Bainbridge Isle, Wash.

When Snow sent his sandals to Chaco (www.chacousa.com), he became the 10,000th person to have his sandals repaired this year as part of the ReChaco program. Each year, Chaco fixes the webbing and soles on about 15,000 pairs of sandals in its facility in Rockford, Mich. The program, which includes 12 year-round employees, is unusual because few outdoor footwear companies have in-house repair operations. Most companies outsource repairs to cobblers such as Dave Page in Seattle (www.davepagecobbler.com).

Mike Gavle, Chaco’s director of customer service and operations, said the ReChaco program has prevented about 28,000 pounds of material from going into landfills. But the repair service has other benefits as well. For one thing, it keeps the company more in-touch with consumers.

“It’s easy for a footwear company to look at repairs as just an expense, but for Chaco, it gives us a chance to have conversations with customers,” said Gavle. “Talking with them is the best part of the job. There seems to be an interesting story behind every pair of sandals, and we want to continue those conversations.”

Of course, another benefit of the ReChaco program is that it can save consumers a few bucks. Rather than spending up to $90 for a new pair of sandals, a person can spend $40 to have the soles repaired, or $36 to have the webbing fixed. Snow said he decided to have his sandals repaired not only because he was attached to them, but also because it seemed like a good deal. “Honestly, it seemed cheaper than getting a new pair,” he said. Plus, he likes the idea that he’s at least doing a small part to prevent another piece of footwear from being pitched into a landfill.

In Europe, high-end Swedish outdoor brand Klattermusen (www.klattermusen.se) launched a program in spring 2010 called rECOver. It allows its retailers to take back used Klattermusen products, for which the company has placed a return value of Euro 1-20 (about USD $1.50-30), depending on its initial value. Retailers will gather the items and return them postage paid to Klattermusen, which will recycle or donate them as appropriate. Each item has a tag sewn into it that shows the value, which the retailer can then rip off to show it’s been returned, returning that money to the consumers.

Sure, in the grand scheme of global consumerism, the amount of material outdoor and sporting goods companies divert from landfills is relatively small -- considering that just one person in the U.S. creates about 1,700 pounds of trash each year. But, hey, every pound counts.

--Marcus Woolf

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