The Importance of (Actually) Reusing and Recycling Outdoor Gear

A relationship with the outdoors is a good thing. But we also need to consider what we wear when we’re out there.

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Before throwing away used gear, consider repairing or donating it.

Illustration by Vanessa Lovegrove

This story is part of Unpacked, a series that explores some of the biggest questions about traveling responsibly. Read more columns on the Unpacked home page—and be sure to subscribe to the podcast.

If there’s one silver lining to come out of the past couple of years, it’s that the pandemic pushed more people to discover new places and new ways to reset. Time spent outside is an invitation to better understand personal curiosities, acquire knowledge about the flora and fauna around us, and strengthen the connection between both. Doing the latter means being good stewards of these natural spaces: staying on groomed paths, limiting waste, leaving plants and animals alone.

But stopping the rapidly accelerating demise of our planet demands more of us than in-the-moment action. Another part of this puzzle involves minimizing our carbon footprint to stave off the mounting effects of climate change. Outdoor gear is no exception.

Consider: Petroleum-based plastics can take more than a hundred years to decompose. Materials are bleached, dyed, and dunked in chemical baths to give us trendy colorways we desire. When these items end up in landfills, the chemicals from the textiles can leach into the surrounding area’s groundwater. Some goods make their way to incinerators, which spout toxins into the air, destroying natural habitats and producing the potent greenhouse gases. It takes more than 650 gallons of water to produce one new cotton T-shirt. Reusing textiles and recycling other materials, then, saves vital resources.

As a gearhead, I’m often tempted by the new. But before I pull out my debit card, I ask myself some questions.

Does this purchase make my forthcoming adventures safer or upgrade my comfort level—or am I just buying this because it looks cool? Sleeping in the backcountry is a challenge for me, and proper rest is crucial to making good decisions in remote places miles away from help. If there’s a product that might provide a better quality night’s sleep, I’m inclined to give it a whirl.

Is there a place that I can try out this equipment before I buy it? My local outdoor outfitter, like most gear shops, offers the opportunity to rent a setup and test functionality, durability, and value before committing to what can be a large, untrialed purchase. I also exercise this option on West Coast camping trips. Instead of shipping things across the country or buying once I arrive at my destination, I rent everything I need.

I buy the best gear I can afford, and I take care of it to try to extend its lifespan. I avoid fabric softener, which coats fibers with waxy chemicals, which in turn clog membranes and damage moisture-wicking properties. I let my tent dry to prevent mold and get rid of visible dirt and rocks so they don’t rub holes into the fabric. I treat my rain shell and other water-resistant items with Nikwax TX Direct Spray-On Water-Repellent Treatment when the product’s efficacy is starting to dwindle. At the end of every adventure, I deep clean all my gear so that dirt doesn’t set, and odors don’t have the chance to dwell. This is my small way of stopping the waste stream—think of it as a reverse supply chain—before it starts.

Ripped seams, broken valves, and other regular usage damages do happen. When I see tears and worn spots, I do my best to mend them by sewing or using duct tape or products like Noso Gear Repair Patches and Gear Aid Tenacious Tape. Companies like Patagonia also offer a DIY repair guide. Another handy solution to help extend the lifecycle of things: repair cafés and community repair events. These spaces are usually open several times a month and tinkerers and repair enthusiasts come together to teach skills and share ideas while restoring an item’s usefulness. There is no cost for the labor, and valuable resources are diverted from the landfill. If those options seem intimidating, there’s no shame in taking your pieces (or mailing them) to highly skilled repair shops that specialize in technical apparel and outdoor equipment.

If a piece is beyond repair, I check what’s covered under the manufacturer’s warranty. Even if the warranty isn’t applicable, I reach out to customer service to inquire about possible restoration options.

Normal wear and tear means I replace my clothing the most. I do my best to stay away from fast-fashion brands (which is harder as a plus-sized woman). When I can, I search out moisture-wicking clothing made of ecofriendly alternative textiles like hemp, lyocell, and bamboo. When I peruse winter items, I look for Responsible Down Standard and Responsible Wool Standard certifications, which tell me a bit about the standards of living and the welfare of the animals involved in my clothing. I’m always looking at third-party certifications like Climate Neutral Certified, Fair Trade Certified, Rainforest Alliance Certified, and Bluesign Approved. Labels like these mean that the company is taking the environment into consideration when manufacturing goods and is working to replace harmful substances or practices with safer alternatives. It takes a little research to make sure a brand isn’t using buzzwords or offering misleading information to look more socially conscious or environmentally responsible, but a bit of digging often clarifies things.

Even after I’ve done all the research, sometimes a purchase just doesn’t work. When the sleeping bag is a tighter fit than expected or a cook set is too cumbersome to use with ease, I return it. Because I buy from stores with a generous return policy (like REI), I can get store credit and put my money toward trying a product that might better suit me. I am wary of final sale deals: in the moment they can seem great, but if it leaves me with a too-small puffy jacket that accumulates dust at the back of my closet, it wasn’t quite the steal I believed it would be. A few shops now allow adventurers to trade in their old gear for cash or store credit, which, if your pieces have a bit of life left in them, is a great way to upgrade things while committing to keeping items out of the garbage heap.

Sometimes a piece of gear I already adore comes out in a different color, and I want it bad. When I do add something new but redundant to my stash, I practice the “one in, one out” rule. For every new item I buy, one must go. Instead of throwing it away, I usually donate it to a center that serves LGBTQ+ youth (who experience homelessness at more than twice the rate of peers) or a local organization that provides outdoor access to communities of color that were historically excluded from outdoor spaces and recreation.

Safety is vitally important to me, and that means there are a couple of things I refuse to skimp on: I always have a second bag packed with the 10 essentials in my trunk for an impromptu hike, and I keep a spare headlamp in my car console in case I should find myself in a remote place after dark. I also do not hold on to things like climbing ropes or gear with big dents or major cracks—no amount of sustainability and eco-consciousness is worth risking an accident or losing a life.

At the end of the day, truly being environmentally friendly requires paying attention and asking questions—of ourselves and the companies we’re giving our money to. But the result means that the environment that we appreciate for inspiring us is here for those who come after us.

Latria Graham is a writer, editor, and cultural critic currently living in South Carolina. She is a columnist at AFAR and a contributing editor at Outside and Garden & Gun magazines.
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