Environmentalists examine effects of ski waxes
The slopes are hallowed ground for many downhill adventurers and ski and snowboard wax is a vital component of that worship as it enables skiers to glide through the snow, cut a line and turn on a dime.
However, the mountain congregation may not realize their "holy oil" actually may damage the environment they love.
Hillbilly Wax Works, a new company from Canada however, is trying to purify the product. It has developed a wax that, it claims, is safer and functional because it’s a combination of vegetable oils with a clean burning, high density hydrocarbon.
"It’s longer lasting than pretty much anything on the market due to a very high melting point," said Tyler Bradley, a "waxorcist" and founder of Hillbilly.
Most ski waxes, he says, have a melting point of 158 degrees Fahrenheit.
"Ours is around 212 degrees. It takes a bit more time applying it and more time with the iron, but it lasts longer," he said.
Bradley believes using an eco-friendly ski wax is important because residue gets into the snow pack and eventually into the water supply.
Heber City resident Ian Harvey, the brand manager for TOKO North America, an international ski wax company, said that is a non-issue.
Harvey says an extremely small portion of wax is actually left on the mountain from skiers and snowboarders. They apply the wax then scrape most it off before hitting the slopes.
"Little of it goes on the base of the skis," Harvey said. "It’s a controlled application. Maybe five-thousandths of it goes on the ski and less of it comes off the ski. In that sense it’s environmentally safe. The material itself is unfriendly, but the product doesn’t end up on the mountain," Harvey said.
Bradley recognizes that most of the wax people purchase goes into the trash. That, however, is not the main issue.
"Our issue is that people are heating these waxes off or melting them and that creates polymer fumes," Bradley said. "There are instances where people have had respiratory attacks form inhaling it. For us it’s a possible safety issue. Melting it onto skis or applying it that way is incredibly irresponsible."
With the traditional ski and snowboard wax’s endurance, Bradley said, throwing the products away isn’t the answer either.
"Sure they go into landfill, but these products will be in the environment for 3,200 to 15,000 years," Bradley said.
The creation of ski wax products is also the problem. As it’s heated in factories, Bradley said, a lot of the toxins are released in the air.
"Its’ a neurotoxin, it’s extremely dangerous," Bradley said. "Our primary aim was to use a less harmful product."
But even Hillbilly wax isn’t perfect, Bradley admits.
"We don’t claim that it’s beyond reproach, we are trying to make it greener," Bradley said. "It’s comparable to a bio-diesel, it’s a step in the right direction but not as green as I’d like it to be."
Harvey admits the product’s ingredients, mostly derived from petroleum aren’t safe,
"There’s no such thing as an environmentally safe ski wax. It’s an oil-based product and they don’t break down."
At the same time, however, Harvey says there’s no impact to the environment.
"They’re not environmentally safe but they’re not environmentally dangerous either. There’s no impact at all," Harvey said. "By definition it’s environmentally friendly," Harvey said.
Ski waxes come in different forms such as a solid block, powder, liquid or a paste that are ironed or rubbed onto the ski. Of most concern are those that use fluorocarbons that may contribute to the destroying the ozone. It’s a similar product used in canned spray items such as hair spray.
Because of its durability, skiers prefer the product, but, Harvey says, environmentalists don’t like it because it doesn’t break down and they fear leftover wax will eventually seep into the mountains.
The difference compared with spray is "the fluorocarbons in waxes don’t get in the air," Harvey said, and the waxes don’t come off the skis as easily either.
"(People) use more fluorocarbons in their bathroom and that goes into the atmosphere," Harvey said. "For us it’s a teeny block about the size of four quarters and it costs $125. People don’t waste it."
There are some environmentally safe ski wax products to be found, however.
"There’s a manufacturer that sells a soy-based ski wax that doesn’t work, and it’s hard to find." Harvey said.
David Lampert, the president of Swix Sport USA doesn’t think the public will buy a more environmentally safe product.
"There’s a tradeoff in performance," Lampert said. Most products that are cheaper or claim to be safer for the environment are composed of materials that break down, he said. In essence, performance skiers and snowboarders won’t be satisfied with a product that doesn’t perform.
For Harvey, there is an answer to the traditional wax. Recycle centers, he said, are able to recycle petroleum products.
Disposing of ski/snowboard wax does not have "a measurable impact over a lifetime," Harvey said, "except for what you do with your wax shavings and with the packaging."
Instead of focusing on wax, Harvey says people should focus on other areas such as littering and other pollution that happens on the mountain.
"A much bigger issue to me and the company I work for is the packaging," Harvey said.
Packaging and shipping products use painted plastics that can hurt the environment more than any wax, he said.
"If we sell 4 million pieces of wax a year, we can have an impact on the environment through the packaging and the tools," Harvey said.
Overall, Harvey says, the ski industry is extremely sensitive to environmental issues and wax companies are no exception. TOKO, along with other companies with roots in Europe, follow the European Union, which Harvey said, are "extremely stringent" with environmental protocols.
TOKO only uses paint in its packaging for instructions. While using less paint on packaging saves some cash, the idea goes beyond the bottom line.
"We try to minimize the amount of packaging," Harvey said. "The back of our package is just cardboard colored because the paint has an impact, so we just leave it and type on the back of it. It’s not a saving money thing, that cost would be minimal anyway."
Environmental efforts "are things we take pride in," Harvey said.
Swix also follows the rigorous demands of the European Union.
"We want to be the most environmentally responsible company," said David Lampert, president of Swix Sport USA. "We are trying to take a lead role in accountability. We are in terms of compliance (of the European Union) with all of our products."
Lampert also says there are more pressing issues that harm the environment than ski wax.
"There are all kinds of pollutants in the snow that come from snowmaking and also natural pollution," Lampert said.
Harvey agrees, and he notices it when he’s on the slopes.
"Say you’re a skier and you eat GU (energy gel) or Powergel," Harvey said. "What do you do with the package? A lot of people chuck it in the snow, that’s probably a hundred times the impact."
Harvey has observed this all over outdoor recreation locations in the state.
"They are all over the place," he continued. "You go down to Moab and those things are all over the place. Recreational cyclists are chucking stuff, not to pick on them but that has way more impact than ski wax."
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