Gyms eye sustainability along with workouts

FEET FIRST: Devin Deholl, co-owner of Cultivate Climbing, says resoling climbing shoes instead of purchasing a new pair is a “win-win” for the customer and the environment. Photo courtesy of Cultivate Climbing

Compared with other businesses, the fitness industry may seem to have a naturally low environmental impact. There are lots of ways to get sweating that don’t use electricity. And a workout doesn’t necessarily require heavy resource use or the purchase of throwaway items.

That being said, fitness is not a zero-waste industry. Several Asheville fitness spaces have come up with creative strategies to be environmentally responsible both inside and outside their gyms.

Reduce the single use

No matter the workout, the person doing the sweating is probably chugging a beverage. It is unknown how many plastic bottles originating in Buncombe County are sorted by Curbie Management through its residential services contract and then sent along to a plastic processing plant. However, figures on recycling and waste worldwide show that the reuse of plastic bottles — the majority of which are made with a recyclable plastic called polyethylene terephthalate, or PET — could improve.

In 2018, the recycling rate of PET bottles and jars was 29.1%, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That same year, landfills received 27 million tons of plastics. Plastics don’t stay inert. “Left alone, plastics don’t really break down; they just break up,” a guide from the Natural Resources Defense Council explains. “Over time, sun and heat slowly turn plastics into smaller and smaller pieces until they eventually become what are known as microplastics.”

Some local gyms don’t sell single-use plastic bottles at all. “We don’t sell bottled water because of not wanting to increase plastic waste,” says Scorch Fitness owner Ellen Olson. “We have a water station where clients can fill up their own reusable water bottles.”

Kathleen Hahn from DANCECLUB Asheville, a pole dance studio, says she purposely stocks small paper cups at her studio’s water cooler.

“People joke about the cups that I provide — they’re really teeny, little kindergarten cups that are paper,” she explains. Does it have her intended effect? “Most people are really good at bringing their own water bottle,” she says.

Sole survivors

The sustainability movement encourages the repair of items when possible rather than disposal and consumption of additional resources to replace them. With this in mind, Devin Deholl, co-owner of Cultivate Climbing, a climbing studio in West Asheville, saw an opportunity to reduce waste created by climbing gear.

“Climbing shoes are relatively resource intensive because of all the rubber that’s used,” Deholl explains. The rubber soles wear down with use, however, and some people “just throw them away.” This can be costly and time-consuming as well as wasteful: Climbing shoes cost $100-$200, and breaking in a new pair takes time (and can be uncomfortable).

Cultivate Climbing previously had a worker who resoled climbing shoes, and another worker is currently training in how to do so, Deholl says. He calls resoling the shoes instead of purchasing a new pair a “win-win” for the customer and the environment. It is “the Patagonia approach of ‘repair, don’t replace,’” Deholl explains, referring to the outdoor clothing brand’s Worn Wear program. (Worn Wear allows customers to trade in used Patagonia clothing and gear, which will either be resold if it can be reused or recycled if it cannot be reused. The program also sells used packs, gear and clothing for kids and adults at a discount.)

Several Asheville gyms also provide gear for rental to minimize consumption. “Anything you’ll need in our yoga classes we provide for you,” says Asheville Yoga Center spokesperson Shayla DiTolla, explaining that yoga mats and props including blocks, bolsters and blankets are available for use by any customer. “That’s another great example of not producing waste by encouraging people to buy things they may not need if they’re taking a one-time class.”

TREE POSE: Asheville Yoga Center allows customers to minimize consumption by using its communal yoga mats and props, including blocks, bolsters and blankets, rather than purchasing their own. Photo courtesy of Shayla DiTolla

Deholl from Cultivate Climbing adds that his gym rents climbing shoes, crash pads, harnesses and other gear.

Allowing people to trade in gear they no longer need is another way fitness spaces encourage reuse. Textiles cannot be sorted from other recycling and must be bagged separately. The Buncombe County Landfill and the Buncombe County Transfer Station Convenience Center both provide bins to receive bagged textiles, which will then be properly recycled.

While nationwide companies like Patagonia have trade-in programs, Asheville’s fitness spaces have a more DIY approach: clothing swaps. Cultivate Climbing hosted a clothing swap in its gym in March. DANCEclub hosts clothing and gear swaps, too.

“Every once in a while, we do a pole clothing swap,” Hahn explains. She notes that club members frequently gift or resell dance outfits, shoes or dancing poles for homes on its members-only Facebook group. “There’s a lot of community sharing going on,” she says.

Sustainable sourcing

In addition to encouraging repairs or swapping gear, several gyms sell sustainably made products.

For example, Cultivate Climbing uses Mount Inspiration Apparel, a local, sustainably made outdoor apparel company, for its T-shirts and printing, says Deholl. According to Mount Inspiration’s website, its sustainable fibers include recycled bottle polyester, upcycled cotton, organic cotton and hemp; its screen printing uses soybean ink instead of petroleum-based ink. (Additionally, the company donates 1% of its annual sales to 1% for the Planet, a nonprofit that disperses philanthropic giving to environmental causes.)

DiTolla at Asheville Yoga Center says the newest mats and props that will be used in the studio and sold in the shop alongside workout clothing are from the sustainably minded brand Manduka. Traditionally, yoga mats are made with a spongy material called polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. According to, PVC includes potentially carcinogenic chemicals like phthalates. Manduka’s products, in contrast, include tree rubber yoga mats, yoga blocks made from cork or recycled foam and towels made of fiber from recycled plastic bottles.

This land is your land

Community-mindedness is a concept taught at Asheville Yoga Center with “random acts of seva,” DiTolla says. “Seva” is a Sanskrit word meaning “together with,” according to Yogapedia, a yoga encyclopedia. DiTolla explains that practicing seva means giving back to the community “without an expectation of being applauded for it or receiving praise.” Some practitioners do seva by picking up trash on the grounds of the center.

Cultivate Climbing, which has an indoor climbing space on Amboy Road, also recently began offering outdoor guided rock-climbing trips. Deholl, who was a longtime raft guide, says he wanted to put the gym’s customers directly in touch with the area’s natural resources to provide education about environmental stewardship.

Rumbling Bald Climbing Access in Chimney Rock State Park and Looking Glass Rock in Brevard are two local climbing areas inhabited by rare plant and animal species, Deholl says. (Rock faces on Rumbling Bald are a habitat for Hickory Nut Gorge green salamanders, which the Center for Biological Diversity has petitioned to receive protection under the Endangered Species Act.) His gym’s guided trips aim to help climbers “understand what this ecosystem is, why it’s so sensitive, how we can protect it and why it’s important,” he explains.

Deholl says he’s seen other outdoor climbing locations, specifically in Colorado, “get really overrun … used and abused,” and it’s important to him not to contribute to that happening in WNC.

“Growing up in Western North Carolina, I’ve always had the outlook that people aren’t going to protect what they don’t love,” he explains. “I think the biggest responsibility we have as stewards is educating people about the resource, what stewardship means and [what] ‘leave no trace’ [means].”


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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