Rock climbing chalk is one of the least expensive and most overlooked pieces of equipment in our climbing gear setup. However, its environmental impact can be one of the biggest of all our gear.
Everything we do has environmental impact, and we need to keep everything in perspective. The act of driving to our climbing location or the pre-climb meal we eat could have more environmental impact than buying a bag of chalk. Regardless, it’s still a good idea to be conscious of all our choices, including what gear we decide to use.
To demonstrate the environmental impacts of using rock climbing chalk, imagine yourself as the superstar you really are, starring in a climbing documentary that details every step in your process of your next big climbing adventure. Throughout the article, I’ll repeatedly “STOP” the imaginary documentary video to show you where and how the environmental impacts of chalk pop up. Then I’ll “PLAY” the video again until we reach the next impact. Note, this article doesn’t cover the full environmental impact of rock climbing, just the impact of using chalk. The full impact of climbing is a much bigger, much broader conversation for another day.
Buying Chalk Online
The process of chalking up for a climb starts long before we ever reach the crag or climbing gym. You, our hypothetical heroine or hero, start your process by going online or into a store to buy some new gear, including a fresh bag of loose chalk. And the process of making that bag started long before that.
All the materials that make up all physical products are either grown or mined. The materials or ingredients can be altered in a lab or manufacturing plant, but they always originate in farms or mines. Athletic chalk is magnesium carbonate, which is mined almost entirely in China, though there are a few other sources scattered around the world. Unless and until we come up with better ways to keep our hands dry and grippy with renewable, recyclable, and/or reusable materials, we’re likely stuck with using mined chalk.
For many years, the magnesium carbonate mines of China and elsewhere were poofing out giant clouds of white dust that coated the countryside and towns near the mines. People and ecosystems alike were literally being choked out on chalk. The local air pollution was uniquely dangerous, and the soil and bodies of water were severely damaged. However, in recent years, China has implemented significant health and environmental safeguards, dramatically reducing the negative impacts of these mines.
Just how much chalk are we rock climbers using? It’s hard to say exactly, but we can make an educated guess. There are around 25M rock climbers globally. I personally use three to four 16 ounce bags of chalk per year (much less now that I’ve switched to liquid chalk, but we’ll get into that later). Assuming most people don’t climb as often as me, I’m going to assume climbers average two bags of chalk per year. That means we collectively go through 50,000,000 pounds, or 25,000 tons, of chalk every single year, and that doesn’t include the chalk used by weight lifters, gymnasts, and other athletes. Even if my estimates are off a bit, it’s still a lot of chalk.
Once again, we do need to keep perspective. Magnesium carbonate is used in many different products, materials, and industrial purposes. The amount of magnesium carbonate used by rock climbers is a small percentage, likely less than 1%, of the total amount of magnesium carbonate mined each year.
Regardless, mining 25K tons of magnesium carbonate for rock climbing chalk every year, no matter how carefully we do it and no matter how much more is mined for other purposes, is still a lot. It still means that we’re digging up large swaths of the earth to collect a nonrenewable resource that we ultimately sprinkle around in parks and gyms. It’s always going to be problematic.
Getting the Package Delivered
A few days later, a package arrives at your door. It’s fun to get packages delivered! You run outside to get it, knowing it’s probably some of the gear you purchased for your upcoming climbing adventure.
The impacts of purchasing products are often much bigger than just the mining of the raw materials. For example, all products have a carbon footprint. For many consumer packaged goods (CPG) products like climbing chalk, the carbon footprint is mostly created by shipping.
First, there’s shipping the raw materials, magnesium carbonate, from the mine to the magnesium carbonate processor where it’s purified and pulverized. Then it’s shipped to a manufacturer to turn it into a form usable by consumers. Next, it’s sent to the distributor or brand, then to the fulfillment company, then to the retailer or vendor, then, finally, to the customer. Some brands manage more than one of these steps, cutting out some supply chain pit stops. However, there are often additional brokers, shipping companies, and other intermediaries in between each of those steps, especially as the product moves between countries.
Before it reaches us, every product we buy, including rock climbing chalk, travels the globe, repeatedly crossing oceans and continents in boats, planes, trucks, and sometimes trains. The total journey can be substantially longer and more circuitous for complex products like smartphones and cars. All this globetrotting our products do on their way to us adds to their carbon footprint.
The supply chain carbon footprint is partly why the buy-local movement exists in food production and other industries. However, unless you’re climbing near the magnesium carbonate mines in China, chalk’s outsized carbon footprint is hard to avoid.
Opening the Package
You bring the package inside. This one is a smallish cardboard box. You excitedly but carefully cut through the plastic packing tape to open it up. As you rummage through the armload of bubble wrap stuffed inside to keep the much smaller bag of chalk from sliding around, you ask yourself out loud, “Why is there always so much packaging?”
Consumer products use a lot of packaging. Most chalk comes in a big cardboard box, a plastic bag full of chalk, some stickers and other marketing materials, and possibly some bubble wrap, packing peanuts, or other materials stuffed into the box to keep the chalk from rattling around. The cardboard box may be recyclable, but a lot of rest ends up in the trash. More on that below.
Pouring Chalk into a Chalk Bag
You open the plastic bag and begin pouring some of the loose chalk inside into your chalk bag. A light cloud of chalk powder puffs out into your face and the table and floor. The camera pans to sunbeams streaming in through the window across the room, as tiny white chalk particles dance in the light.
If this step is done inside, chalk dust goes everywhere in and stays in the air. The long-term health effects of inhaling magnesium carbonate particles are unknown, but it’s widely assumed that frequent inhalation of excessive chalk dust particles is likely not good for our lungs.
However, if this step is done outside, the chalk dust goes everywhere on the ground. When it eventually rains, chalk deposits can transform into hydromagnesite, a hard crust or shell that cakes over the soil and curbs both plant and animal life potentially for decades or longer. We don’t yet know the long-term impacts of magnesium carbonate deposits on ecosystems, although we can reasonably guess it’s not good.
Throwing Away the Packaging
The plastic and aluminum bag the chalk came in wasn’t recyclable, so you guiltily toss it in the trash.
If we’re lucky, this bag ends up in a stinky landfill where it will pollute our rivers and aquifers as it decomposes over millennia. If we’re unlucky, it’ll find its way into the ocean, get eaten by multiple birds and fish, and ultimately degrade into yet more microplastics that permeate literally every drop of ocean water and the bodies of every animal and plant on the planet.
Sorry to be a downer here, but that’s what happens when something gets “thrown away,” and I’d be remiss to ignore this fact. The story gets better soon, so just hold on a little longer.
Using Chalk During the Climb
You make your way out to the crag and start your climb. You gear up and get ready for your first warm-up climb of the day. It feels good to be outside in nature, with all the sun, trees, and birds all around you. It’s all incredibly serene and beautiful. You reach up and grab that first hold.
Chalk stays on the wall like graffiti, especially in arid regions and on overhung cliff faces. It never comes off unless cleaned off, which, let’s be honest, rarely happens.
Further, chalk builds up on holds over time, gunking up popular routes so badly they become effectively unclimbable. We’ve all seen much worse ways humans have defaced nature, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think our chalk usage is totally innocent on this front.
Leaving Chalk Behind
You’ve had a great day of climbing. You even sent a couple routes you’ve never finished before. You pack up your gear and get ready to head home. The camera pans one last time to you and your friends, laughing together and reflecting on another great day of climbing as the sun sets over the hills in the background.
You may have left the crag, but much of the chalk you left behind either settles or washes into the surrounding soil. As mentioned before, excess chalk buildup restricts plant growth, harms animals, and degrades the soil. In other words, we’re slowly killing the beautiful spaces we love.
Rewind: Alternate Endings
Now that we’ve seen the environmental impacts of using chalk in a typical day of climbing, let’s consider the alternatives.
Imagine that we rewind the video to the beginning and watch it a few more times. Each time it proceeds differently so that we explore some new choices in an attempt to be a little nicer to the environment. These alternatives won’t eliminate the negative environmental impacts of our chalk usage, but they can dramatically reduce it.
Don’t Use Chalk
This time, instead of climbing on a sunny rock face on a hot afternoon, you decide to climb in cooler weather, in the morning, and/or on north-facing cliffs in the northern hemisphere or south-facing cliffs in the southern hemisphere. Instead of chalking up, you rub some dust and sand on your hands before each climb. When your hands get sweaty, you wipe your hands on your clothing. You even clip to your harness a small towel with which to dry your hands.
Some climbers never use chalk. More power to them. My hands, however, get sweaty when I climb. If you’re like me, like most climbers, going fully chalkless isn’t realistic. What other options do we have?
First, you can try Metolius EcoBalls. They are a chalk substitute for loose chalk. Many people think it works reasonably well, but it does produce a fine powdery dust that triggers allergies and sinus irritation in some people. Regardless, mad props to Metolius for innovating a new product that directly addresses many of the problems inherent in traditional loose chalk.
Use Less Chalk
In this version of the video, you simply use less chalk. You resist the urge to chalk up three times before starting each climb and every 30 seconds thereafter. It’s a nervous habit for many of us climbers, and there’s even some dubious evidence* that too much chalk can actually reduce the friction coefficient of our skin against the surfaces of climbing holds. (*The evidence is dubious, because I personally feel better friction with holds when I use chalk. Millions of climbers feel the same, or else they wouldn’t use it.)
Reducing our chalk usage can help in theory, but it’s hard to put into practice. Especially when your hands are slick with sweat, you’re halfway up a route, and you’re stuck trying to hold onto a tiny crag or slippery sloper. It’s quite reassuring to dip back into the chalk bag for a quick rechalk before crushing the crux move and sending the rest of the route.
If being a chalk miser instead of a chalk monster doesn’t sound appealing, what other options do we have?
Use Colored Chalk
This time, you purchase and use colored chalk that approximately matches the color of the rock you’ll be climbing later in the video. If you’re feeling ambitious and have plenty of time on your hands, you can also brush off any chalk you leave behind as you go.
Colored chalk can reduce the graffiti of white holds and tick marks left behind on popular routes, but that’s about the only benefit over regular chalk. Still, some national parks prohibit chalk that doesn’t match the color of the local rock, so it may be worth considering.
Use Liquid Chalk
Liquid chalk is not a perfect solution, but it’s a darn good one. If you’re not familiar, liquid chalk is chalk in a creamy form. It typically consists of magnesium carbonate and alcohol, plus sometimes a few other ingredients. You spread a small dollop across your hands, wait a few seconds for the alcohol to dry, and you’re chalked up and ready to climb for a lot longer than you would be with a single application of loose chalk.
Just make sure to avoid liquid chalks that contain pine rosin (AKA pine resin, pine tar, pitch, sap, and colophony). Pine rosin is extremely sticky, which can be useful for gripping slippery surfaces, but it gums up holds badly. Because it’s not water soluble, it won’t wash away in the rain, and thus it will ruin routes forever.
The environmental benefits of liquid chalk include:
- Climbers tend to use far less liquid chalk as compared with climbers who use loose chalk. Climbers chalk up less frequently. This means a lot less magnesium carbonate being mined and shipped around the world.
- Liquid chalk comes in smaller bottles and thus, can require less packaging, depending on the company.
- Liquid chalk often comes in reusable and recyclable bottles, instead of plastic and aluminum bags that get thrown away.
- Liquid chalk creates less dust, which is good for the environment and our health, especially for indoor gym climbing. We’ll discuss the health benefits of liquid chalk in a future article.
One downside is that liquid chalk can be challenging to reapply one-handed mid-climb. Some climbers apply a base layer of liquid chalk before a climb and then reapply loose chalk from their chalk bag as they go. Although this strategy maximizes chalk coverage and efficacy, it also potentially negates the environmental benefits listed above by doubling up on chalk usage, doubling packaging and containers, and doubling the carbon footprint by making multiple purchases.
Use Pika Liquid Chalk
You decided that liquid chalk is the way to go. When researching and buying some liquid chalk, you decide to buy Pika Liquid Chalk.
Full disclosure, I also founded Pika, so I’m more than a little biased. However, minimizing the environmental impact of rock climbing chalk is one of the main reasons we created our liquid chalk product line in the first place.
I won’t hard-sell you here, but I will share how our products minimize the environmental impacts of rock climbing chalk. I’ll do this for two reasons. One, so you can make more informed decisions before buying and using chalk. Two, so you can put pressure on all companies in this industry, including us, to do better. Businesses and consumers alike need to be held accountable for the destructive downstream consequences of our choices.
So then… how does Pika Liquid Chalk help you have a smaller ecological footprint when you climb?
- It’s liquid chalk. See all the reasons listed above.
- Pika’s unique liquid chalk formula stays on your hands a very long time. It doesn’t easily rub off on holds or fall off to the ground. This means you’ll chalk up less frequently than you would by using other liquid chalks, meaning you’ll use a lot less chalk overall.
- Pika uses organic ingredients whenever possible. We also use extremely pure, high-grade magnesium carbonate. Using high quality and organic ingredients makes our products safer for our customers, our employees, and the environment.
- We use minimal packaging that’s 100% compostable. Most, but not all, chalk brands use packaging that can’t be recycled or composted, but a few are starting to find more sustainable options.
- Our bottles are reusable, refillable, and recyclable, as are the bottles of most liquid chalk companies.
- Pika’s 1.75 fl. oz. liquid chalk bottles have a retractable lanyard that makes for easier one-handed applications, meaning you don’t have to also buy loose chalk in order to easily rechalk mid-climb.
- Our supply chain is vertically integrated, which reduces the carbon footprint of each bottle of chalk we sell. Pika serves as manufacturer, distributor, fulfillment company, and vendor (for our online sales) all in one. The chalk and other ingredients travel from our suppliers (i.e., the mine in China) directly to our warehouse in Austin, Texas, USA, where we manufacture, package, store, and sell all our own products. Then we ship our products directly to the buyer. All this cuts out several steps that excessively zig zag consumer products around the world. The carbon footprint isn’t zero, but we do the best we can.
One Final Scene
On the whole, rock climbing equipment companies tend to be pretty environmentally conscious. They have good products and policies. Their teams care deeply about nature. But definitely do your homework, because some chalk companies pay little attention to the environmental impact of their products. Their lack of environmental policies and practices reflect this.
That said, we can’t leave it solely up to the businesses. Businesses respond to customer demands. If, as consumers, we consistently and collectively ask for better products and practices, then that’s what we’ll get.
We rock climbers love our sport, we love our gear, and we love our chalk. As we do that, let’s make sure we love our planet too.
Whichever version of the documentary you chose, eventually the climb ends. The final scene shows a closeup of you looking happy and thoughtful. Only you know that you’re thinking about how your day of climbing has impacted the environment both nearby and far away. You’re thinking how you feel pretty good about your choices but wish we could do better. Then the camera pans out to a gorgeous view of the sun setting over the nearby hills and trees as the credits roll.
If you’d like to know more about the environmental impact of climbing chalk, or if you’d like to know more about Pika’s environmental practices, please DM me, Matt Sparks, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m happy to dive deeper into this topic, and potentially write additional articles on it, if people request it.
Additional Reading and Resources
Here are some additional articles and resources worth checking out, if you’d like to dig deeper on this topic:
- This article, by Bradley Allf of Climbing Magazine, also looks at the environmental impacts of climbing chalk.
- This article, posted by Corey Keyser to his Medium account, makes a strong case for banning climbing chalk altogether, or at very least banning loose chalk.
- Here’s some research of climbing chalk’s impact on plant life.
- This article by Conquer Your Crux compares loose or dry chalk with liquid chalk.
- This article, by Paul pennington on Rock Climbing Central, looks at all the various ways rock climbing affects the environment, and it provides a good checklist for minimizing our impact.
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