Fitness Fads and Their Environmental Price Tag
The current infrastructure in place for e-waste recycling has mainly consisted of a ‘Distributor Takeback Scheme’, where stores can offer to take in old equipment for free (UK Parliament 2021). They are, allowed to opt out of taking back these goods, however, meaning that consumers are often left confused as to where they can drop off their old tech.
This is a large-scale issue, and Steve Hoyles—personal trainer and owner of Hoyles Fitness and MyGym—is of the opinion that home gyms aren’t going to stick. He commented that “[his trainees] can’t wait to get back to the gym so they can train in a more stimulating environment, with other people alongside them”. There are over 7,000 gyms and leisure centres in the UK today, which, as of March 2020, had a membership base of over 10.5 million (Minton 2019). Disregarding new memberships, there would still be almost three million gymgoers once they reopen. That means millions of households may contain redundant leisure and sports equipment, which is one of the ten categories of ‘waste electrical and electronic equipment’ (WEEE) recycling that the Health and Safety Executive aims to tackle in the coming years (HSE 2019). Large household goods make up 40% of all WEEE, which includes the bulkier gym items like exercise bikes.
Just like COVID home gyms, fitness fads of the past (and their associated technologies) have led to similar e-waste issues. These fads are damaging not only to our wallets, but also to our grip on the ever-growing e-waste crisis. For example, a survey found that 30% of fitness trackers are abandoned when they still work (Gartner 2016). Creating a change in attitude towards our technology consumption could be key in tackling this rising issue.
Rash fitness purchases are often made when crazes sweep the nation, eventually adding to the ever-growing waste levels. Perhaps one of the first names that springs to mind when thinking of ‘fad’ lockdown fitness is the Peloton indoor bike. The latest quarterly report from the company states that the brand made a revenue of $1,064.8 million in the last 12 months, which represents a 128% increase from the previous period (Peloton 2021).
Lockdown isn’t the only reason for Peloton’s boost in sales – the company is also using a strategy called ‘planned obsolescence’, which phases out older models of equipment so that consumers feel obliged to buy the latest one. Many users of the original 2014 model will now be considering upgrading if they haven’t already, as their bikes have not been compatible with software updates for the last two years (Garun 2019), which eventually results in lagging performances. Peloton is not alone in doing this. Indeed, it has unfortunately become the norm. The repercussions of this can be fatal to our environment as it leads to a steady flow of perfectly good equipment ending up on the scrapheap.
In terms of composition, these bikes appear to be relatively ‘green’. The main frame of Peloton’s bikes is made of steel and the pedals of aluminium, both of which are 100% recyclable materials when sorted properly. Even the belt that drives the cycling motion is made of a fully recyclable elastomer called Poly V® (Peloton 2019). However, the smaller components of the bike pose more of an environmental challenge. Neodymium is used for the Peloton’s magnetic gear system, which allows the user to change the resistance of the bike. This rare-earth element (REE) is seeing a surge in demand due to products like this, and is also a key material in electric vehicle motors (Guerra 2017). It is predicted that there will be a shortage of neodymium, along with two other REEs—dysprosium oxide and praseodymium—of 16,000 tonnes by 2030 (Adamas Intelligence 2020). Whilst Pelotons are largely recyclable, the larger issue is the creation of demand for materials that are in already short supply.
Fitbit is another industry leader that has been around a little longer than Peloton. Established in 2007, the company specialises in wearable fitness trackers.
While the wristband is composed of a recyclable elastomer, the major issue with these fitness trackers is that their batteries cannot be replaced. With the Fitbit Alta having an expected lifespan of 1-2 years (Yeh 2018), these devices are being continually repurchased and discarded. A recent tweet from the official Fitbit account states that ‘[We] don’t have any recycling program but we suggest recycling your defective Fitbit through a local electronics recycling program near you’ (Fitbit 2020). This lack of end-of-life care for products is a real problem, meaning the easiest option is to throw the watch away inadequately.
A less recent example of a fitness fad is the NordicTrack ski machine, which was created in 1975 (FundingUniverse 1998). The machine gained real traction in the 90s, with peak sales in 1992 reaching $411 million (AdAge 1994), which translates to about $770 million in today’s money (CPI Inflation n.d.). However, the company soon lost their consumer base, and in 1995 had to file for bankruptcy (Pederson 2001).
This quick drop of public favour meant that many machines were discarded. The best-selling Pro model has a base made of oak, with a varnish that can contain toxic chemicals (like mercury and lead), making it hard to recycle safely. Indeed, it’s recommended that this type of wood is taken straight to the landfill, rather than attempting to recycle it (Bennett 2014). Another issue is the chrome-plated steel frame (NordicTrack n.d.). Chrome-plating techniques traditionally use lead in the process (SEA 2015), which again poses an environmental threat. The frame itself is not easy to recycle, making NordicTrack machines one of the more polluting fads out there.
There are plenty more examples of short-lived fitness trends, including the Thigh Master, steppers and toning belts to name a few. All of these are associated with environmental pitfalls of some form which, when totalled up, create a prominent issue.
Shaping up for a sustainable future
It’s promising, then, that almost 80% of consumers in 2020 say they prioritise sustainability in their purchasing decisions (Institute for Business Value 2020), which is the first step towards changing retailer actions.
This mindset is being mirrored by the UK Government, who have recently reinforced their ‘polluter pays’ principle. In response to an enquiry from The Environmental Audit Committee, the new policy states that ‘large retailers [are required] to provide in-store take back [from 1st January 2021]’ (UK Parliament 2021). There is a question of how successful this will be in alleviating e-waste levels, though, as the onus is still on the consumer to take their old items back to the store. Evidently, these returns aren’t being made – the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Ipsos MORI survey found that 82% of UK households don’t plan to recycle or sell the old devices that they no longer use (RSC 2018). More proactive steps may therefore need to be taken to increase recycling levels.
There is hope yet for the UK to improve, however, as many fellow UN countries have established strong recycling schemes that we could learn from. Notably, Sweden has 34 ‘waste-to-energy’ power plants, where 50% of the country’s non-recyclable waste is incinerated (Yee 2018). These alone could power over 250,000 Swedish homes (Garcia-Rubio 2020) and are so efficient that they require overseas waste to maintain their round-the-clock operations. This is an expert method of sorting urban waste, with great commitment from Swedish citizens to make the scheme flourish.
These strategies could be implemented in the UK, but require hefty investments in the relevant technologies along with a joint effort from the government and UK households alike. Although, as consumers, this is not our personal job implement, the takeaway message is to think twice before purchasing the latest fitness gadget and consider whether we truly need them. A tip from Steve Hoyles is to ‘buy for the future. Also, think about storage – buy items you can fit in the house’. Additionally, lockdown equipment can be kept for rainy days, or sold on to have a second lease of life – turning what would have been waste into wealth.
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