Monday, March 30th, 2009

Get Away from Plastics? Plastics Help Me Get Away!

gearPlastics play a big part in how I get away from it all.

For adventure races, I usually need a helmet, paddle, compass, hydration system, synthetic clothing, waterproof map case and whistle. They’re made of expanded polystyrene foam, polycarbonate, polyester, polypropylene, multi-layer polyurethane, nylon, vinyl and probably other plastics as well. I rely on these materials to protect my head while biking, canoeing or zip-lining on fixed ropes, as well as to navigate, stay hydrated on-the-go, keep warm, keep maps intact and signal in an emergency. Plastic bags were even issued in one race so teams could collect invasive plants while out on the race course.

For more of the outdoors, I go backpacking. Components of my tent, backpack and sleeping pads are rip-stop nylon, polyester, high-density polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene and polyurethane foam. I keep some first-aid supplies in a waterproof case made of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene. Mugs, bowls and utensils? Polypropylene, nylon and polycarbonate are options.

These materials have my back out there. Waterproof fabrics keep me dry in downpours and hold up against thorns. My hydration reservoir has been squished but hasn’t burst, and newer versions are guaranteed for life. Anti-microbial treatments help prevent bacteria and fungus from growing inside my new sleeping pad. My nylon utensils can handle temperatures up to 450°F, and synthetic fill sleeping bags have kept me cozy around 0°F.

Other materials have their place, and people accomplished some amazing things before plastics hit the scene. But these days, you can get a backpack with a heat moldable hipbelt for a custom fit, and bowls that pack flat, thanks to plastics. And it’s not all high tech now, either. Ever use a cable tie to make a quick repair?

Leave No Trace principles are important in the outdoors, and manufacturers are minimizing their environmental impact, too. Efforts include recycling polyester base layer clothing (originally made of recycled content) when they wear out, through programs like Common Threads Garment Recycling. I read a review of a sleeping bag that is 99.5% recyclable, with many components made of 100% recycled polyesters. It’s amazing how much post-industrial and post-consumer waste can be used for new products. And thanks to innovative materials and designs, less material is used and gear is lighter and more compact.

From compasses to tents, plastics help me get away from it all. What are some of your favorite innovations or uses for plastic in outdoor gear?

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