Outdoor swimming products and their impact on the environment (and what you can do to minimise your impact)

Swimwear

If you are swimming in the sea, lakes and rivers then you probably have an inherent desire to connect with nature and to reap the associated mental and physical health benefits. If you are like me, you hopefully want to make sure your impact on this natural environment is minimal. We all make sure we don’t drop litter, damage the places where we swim and try not to disrupt other users of the water (human, animal or plant), but what about the kit and products we use? What impact do they have on our swimming environmental footprint?

I’ve always tried to re-cycle and use as little plastic as possible. More recently, I’ve been thinking more about the equipment I use to support my swimming and the potential impact that it has on the environment.

I am amazed at what I have found out and I am certainly going to ask more questions about the products I buy and use, not just for swimming, but for all my activities. I’m not going to name and shame any brands or advise on which ones to buy, but I’d like to arm you with data and questions you may like to consider before you purchase your next item.


Wetsuits

Rewind to the 1930s, when synthetic foamed rubber - or neoprene - was invented. Neoprene is an elastomer with the chemical name polychloroprene, and is produced through a chemical process of binding strings of a clear liquid called chloroprene together. The original chloroprene wetsuits were made with petroleum-based chemicals – which are harmful to the environment – but luckily, most swimming wetsuits have now moved on from this technology.

Beware of SBR ‘neoprene’ wetsuits. SBR is fake neoprene, which is stiff and not UV and ozone resistant. This cheap foam absorbs water and is only suitable for laptop sleeves or beer coolers, so should not be used to make wetsuits.

It might sound strange, but it’s common practice these days that a limestone rock will eventually become your high-end wetsuit. In the 1960s, a new way of making neoprene was invented. The main neoprene compound remains chloroprene, but instead of using dirty petroleum-based ingredients, it now uses calcium carbonate from limestone to form chloroprene rubber chips. These rubber chips are melted down in an oven, then infused with air bubbles and baked into a block of neoprene foam. This block is then sliced to make wetsuits, ranging from 0.4mm to 10mm thickness and everything in between.

The elongation, flexibility and insulation characteristics of limestone neoprene are the same or better than its predecessor - petroleum-based neoprene - but it is less harmful to the environment.

Some companies have different names for their more environmentally friendly neoprene. You might have heard of Japanese Yamamoto neoprene, which is used in some high-end wetsuit models. Other versions of limestone neoprene are Bioprene and Geoprene wetsuits. Yulex is another alternative made out of natural rubber, but unfortunately this has limited availability.

When buying a wetsuit, it’s worth checking what the brand says about its environmental policies, and the packaging it uses for shipping.

Wetsuit recycling: It’s impossible to recycle neoprene back into raw neoprene to make new wetsuits due to the combination of different materials used. However, there’s a great alternative way to give your wetsuit a second life: by shredding your old wetsuit into pieces, the neoprene can be up-cycled into qualified products such as yoga mats.

Key take-away: Try to purchase a good quality wetsuit made from limestone neoprene that will last a long time. Keep it in good condition, use biodegradable cleaning and conditioning products and try to repair any damages rather than replace the entire wetsuit. If you do need to change wetsuit and your old one is still in good condition, then consider donating it to charity or giving it to a local swimming club.


Swimsuits

Most swimsuits are made from 100% man-made fibres. Natural fibres such as cotton absorb water, making them impractical for swimming. Manmade fabrics are mostly composed of nylon (from 80% to 90%) but also have a significant amount of lycra or spandex (10% to 20%).

Some swimsuit manufacturers are now making their suits from recycled fishing nets, recycled plastic bottles and consumer waste which is great for the environment and can be 100% chlorine proof too, which means you many not even have to replace them that often.

It is difficult to recycle swimsuits made from nylon and other plastic based fabrics so when you swimsuit has decayed to a point when you can't use it for swimming then there are some ideas for what you can do with it at Tree Hugger.

Key take-away: Consider buying swimsuits made from recycled products.


Swimming hats

Swimming hats can be made from latex, silicone or lycra: silicone is recyclable, but not collected widely for recycling, while latex and lycra (spandex) aren’t recyclable on a large scale yet. Some brands now make swim hats from recycled materials, so this may be worth a look.

Key take-away: Buy silicone hats that can be recycled more easily. If your hat does wear out then send it to a recognised recycling company (see below).


Goggles

Many google manufacturers are now using recyclable packaging but very few make goggles from recycled materials. Your best bet for goggles therefore is to find a way to recycle them when you need to, using companies like the one below.


Liquids, lubes

Anti-Fog

Many swimmers use anti-fog products to ensure their goggles don’t steam up. There are many products available for this, but the key here is to make sure they state that they are “reef safe” or “ocean safe”, as not all are. I have heard some swimmers swearing by baby shampoo, but I avoid this as some baby shampoos contain a preservative called quaternium-15, which when used releases formaldehyde, which can cause skin irritation. There is a long list of other chemicals in baby shampoo too, which are probably best not to introduce to rivers, lakes and the sea. To be fair, there are adult shampoos which also contain harmful chemicals. If you google “shampoo safe for the ocean” you will find a list of products that won’t damage the water you swim in but I’ve no idea if they will help keep your goggles fog-free!

Wetsuit lube / anti-chafing products

There are many products that swimmers use to help stop chafing when swimming, from Vaseline to other products specifically designed for the task. Vaseline is a by-product of the petroleum process and I’d prefer not to introduce it to the water. In addition, it can damage the neoprene in your wetsuit. Using a product designed for anti-chafing is better but look out for products that state they are “ocean safe” or natural. I have seen products based on beeswax and aloe which you can try.

Sunscreen

Recently, researchers have voiced concerns about the harmful effects of chemical sunscreens on human health and the environment. Specifically, two of the most popular ingredients in chemical sunscreens — oxybenzone and octinoxate — have been shown to cause significant damage to coral reefs. A recent study revealed that about 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in reefs worldwide, which can lead to bleaching, damaged DNA and abnormal skeleton growth in coral. When looking for sunscreen then look for mineral-based products such as All Good sport sunscreen, Think Sport, Badger, Alba Botinica, Aveeno and Bare Republic. I said I wouldn’t list brands, but it can be hard to find mineral sunscreen, so I made an exception. Sorry!

Wetsuit cleaning, conditioning and repair

Cleaning your wetsuit after your swim will help it last longer, so apart from using just fresh water, there are some products on the market that contain no harmful chemicals and are biodegradable (plus have some very inventive names!). Using cleaning and conditioning products will keep your wetsuit in good condition and help it last longer.

It’s also a good idea to give your wetsuit a good clean after each swim so you don’t transfer parasites from one ecosystem to another. For example, in Spain we have a type of mussel that has appeared in some lakes that we don’t want to spread to other lakes so we are asked to clean boats, kayaks, SUPs, wetsuits etc. when we leave. Below is an example of a sign you may see at a swimming venue in Spain:

Mussle Warning Sign

How to recycle your swimming hats and goggles

Sea & Stream is an outdoor swimming shop. Their focus is on offering sustainable products, gifts and solutions for outdoor swimmers. They are working on sourcing the most planet-friendly options for goggles. Sea and Stream can also recycle your goggles and swim hats. To save them from going to landfill, send your old hats and goggles to them.


Wetsuit repairs

Repairing your wetsuit rather than replacing it is better for the environment as wetsuits are not easy to recycle. Some repair products contain substances that are toxic to aquatic life so ensure that you choose one with the least environmental impact and apply well away from the water, plus make sure it’s fully dry before using the suit in the water. For major repairs, do an internet search for “wetsuit repair” as there are companies that will do this for you.


Putting it all together

Many companies have already woken up to the impact of their products on the environment. You may already be doing the right thing to keep the areas you swim in the best they can be. But if you are thinking of buying new products then please take a little time to check that they are ocean/reef safe, biodegradable and as natural as they can be. If you have any ideas on how to recycle, reuse or know of ocean-safe products, I would love to hear from you.


About Karen

Karen Parnell is an ASA Open Water Swimming Coach, and British Triathlon Federation (BTF) Level 3 High Performing Coach and Tutor. She is also a qualified Personal Trainer and IRONMAN® Certified Coach. Karen is based near Malaga in southern Spain where she runs ChiliTri coaching and camps. Find out more: www.chilitri.com

The title picture is from ChiliTri's open water swimming camp at Burriana Beach, Nerja, southern Spain

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Issue 43 November 2020

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  • Cold water swimming - why do it, how, and what are the benefits?
  • Our new monthly columnist, Sarah Thomas
  • Olympian Keri-anne Payne on how to make the most of limited pool sessions
  • Elaine Howley on the first Asian woman to swim the Channel, Arati Sah

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