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Choose an environmentally friendly backpack

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Many of the backpacks, sleeping bags, and other camping gear we use are made with petroleum byproducts or pesticide-treated cotton, plus additional toxic chemicals that can harm ecosystems and contribute to global climate change.[1] Choosing eco-friendly backpacks made from organic cotton, hemp, or recycled plastic bottles reduces air and water pollution, protects the environment from toxic chemicals, and cuts down on landfill waste.

Find it! Environmentally friendly backpacks

Choosing an environmentally friendly backpack helps you go green because...

  • Fewer toxic chemicals are released into the environment in the backpack’s production and life cycle as compared to conventional backpacks.
  • Backpacks made from eco-friendly materials are not made with petroleum like vinyl backpacks.
  • A backpack made of organic cotton reduces the use of pesticides, which pollute waterways and threaten wildlife.
  • Backpacks made from recycled plastic bottles reduce landfill waste.




Vinyl backpacks are made of hazardous polyvinyl chloride (PVC)[2], which releases dioxin, mercury, and other harmful pollutants into the environment.[3] Dioxin moves easily throughout the environment and accumulates in fatty tissue up the food chain.[4] PVC is derived from petroleum[2], a fossil fuel that is non-renewable. Its use contributes to the environmental hazards associated with petroleum exploration and processing. These hazards include disruption of land and ocean habitats, oil spills which can kill wildlife, and pollution of water supplies.[5] Areas surrounding PVC plants suffer from groundwater pollution, as well as air pollution.[6] PVC also can’t be recycled because it contains an array of toxic chemicals that are added during production to make the plastic soft. Unfortunately many consumers, unaware of this, attempt to recycle PVC plastic and unknowingly render thousands of potentially recycled containers useless. Just one PVC bottle can contaminate a recycling batch of 100,000 bottles![7]

In addition, Greenpeace's research has found lead and cadmium in vinyl backpacks.[8] These findings are backed up by research from the Center for Environmental Health, which found a popular children's backpack to contain 13,000 parts per million of lead, more than 21 times the legal limit for lead in paint.[9] Phthalates, a type of plasticizer, are often used in backpacks and can be inhaled or ingested, posing health risks to both humans and animals.[2]


Backpacks can also be made from conventional cotton, which accounts for one-quarter of the world's pesticide use, according to Pesticide Action Network (PANNA). Pesticides pollute waterways and threaten land and wildlife.[3] Organic cotton backpacks are made from fibers grown via organic farming practices, which nurtures soil health and fosters biologically diverse agriculture.[10] From 2000 to 2001, an estimated 14 million pounds of organic cotton was harvested in 12 countries—about .03 percent of total global cotton production. To gain official organic certification in the US by a government-approved certifier, cotton must adhere to the same criteria established by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) for edible crops since cotton seeds and oil are used in food products: 95 percent of the ingredients must be grown in soil that has been free of toxic pesticides and fertilizers for a minimum of three years and the product cannot contain genetically modified organisms.[11][12]

Alternative fabrics

Organic cotton

Organic cotton is grown and processed without insecticides, herbicides, or fungicides[13] with control of crop pests, weeds, and diseases achieved mainly through physical, mechanical, and biological controls.[14] A 2006 survey of US organic cotton farmers done by the Organic Trade Association showed a 14 percent increase in planted acreage from 2004 to 2005 but those numbers remain well below what was grown in 1995, organic cotton's peak production year in the US.[15]


Despite the controversy surrounding hemp's status as a legal crop—especially in the United States where it is considered a Schedule 1 controlled substance like marijuana—[16] it is an earth-friendly alternative to conventional cotton. Hemp produces three times as much fiber per acre as cotton. Like cotton, hemp requires water and fertilizer to grow but it doesn't need to be treated with pesticides or herbicides.[17] The farming of hemp benefits overall soil conditions by adding nutrients, fostering microbial life, and eradicating weed growth.

Recycled plastic bottles

Some companies have even begun offering backpacks made from recycled plastic bottles. One Texas company, EarthPak, has teamed up with the University of North Texas to collect bottles for backpack making, collecting 2,800 pounds of plastic solely at games in 2007.[18] Every ton of plastic recycled saves 7.4 cubic yards of space in garbage landfills. Recycling plastic bottles reduces the amount of garbage clogging landfills, and limits the environment's exposure to chemical contaminants from products like soap, hair dye, and cleaning products that can seep into the soil and contaminate ecosystems.[19] Recycling plastics also saves energy. One recycled plastic bottle conserves enough energy to power a light bulb for up to three hours.[20]

Dyes and pigments

The dyes used on backpacks can also be toxic. Fabric dyes are largely petrochemical-based and contain lead, mercury, and cancer-causing heavy metals like chromium VI, arsenic, and cadmium. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) believes a number of dyes to be hazardous due to the threat of groundwater contamination in the vicinity of manufacturing plants.[21]

Related health issues

The EPA classifies dioxin as a human carcinogen.[2] Dioxin has also been linked to organ damage, reproductive system damage, and immune system suppression.[6] Phthalates affect sexual development, reproductive health, and are a probable carcinogen according to the US Toxicology Program.[8]

Controversies: Hemp and marijuana

Hemp and marijuana are both members of the plant species Cannabis sativa and have both been considered Schedule 1 controlled substances in the United States since the late 1950s.[22] While it is a crime to grow all forms of cannabis in the United States, it is not illegal to sell hemp products such as paper and clothing. Cannabis grown for industrial purposes—hemp—and cannabis grown for recreational and medicinal uses—marijuana—have a different biological makeup. Both contain two distinct "cannabinoids:" the psychoactive THC and the anti-psychoactive CBD. Industrial hemp contains high levels of CBD and low levels—less than 1 percent of THC, while the makeup of marijuana is the reverse. It is nearly impossible to achieve a narcotic high from smoking hemp.[23]

There are movements in the United States on both national and state levels to reintroduce industrial hemp as an agriculturally viable crop. Hemp advocates note the plant's potential as an alternative to tree-based paper, cotton-based clothing, and other items whose production poses environmental risks. The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and other opposing parties believe that if the ban on hemp farming is lifted it would become easier to grow marijuana alongside it. It is also often assumed that those who support industrial hemp farming are part of a marijuana legalization subculture.[24]


  • cadmium: A chemical used in pigments, fabric dyes, plastics, and metal coatings that can harm kidneys, lungs, and digestive tracts.[25]
  • dioxins: Dioxins are extremely persistent chemical compounds that are created inadvertently by human activities like incineration and fuel combustion.[26] Dioxins break down slowly so they persist in the environment for many years. Exposure to dioxins may cause adverse health effects, such as cancer, reproductive and developmental disorders, and skin disease.[27]
  • genetically modified organism: GMOs result from merging the genetic makeup of two organisms to create a desired byproduct that could otherwise not be found in nature. Using genetically modified seed is a common practice in conventional farming. Studies have shown that GMOs pose significant environmental risks and cause some insects which feed on GM crops to become resistant to pesticides.
  • hydrogen cyanide: Hydrogen cyanide is a highly poisonous chemical compound used in dyeing, explosives, engraving and tempering steel.
  • mercury: Found in some fabric dyes, mercury can accumulate in tissue and may cause brain and kidney damage, especially in children.[25]
  • phthalates: Phthalates are additives that are widely used in plastics and other materials, mainly to make them soft and flexible. They have applications in industry, in medicine and in consumer products. There is public concern about phthalates because of their widespread use and occurrence in the environment.[28] Phthalates can damage the liver, kidneys, lungs and reproductive system, particularly the developing testes, according to animal studies.[29]
  • polyvinyl chloride (PVC): A strong plastic polymer that can be made flexible through the use of plasticizers. These plasticizers, not the PVC itself, can be toxic and carcinogenic. However, the monomer used to make PVC, vinyl chloride, is carcinogenic, posing a serious health threat to the people who work at factories where PVC is created.[30] PVC is often used to make teethers, bath toys and other toys that young children play with, and often place in their mouths.[31]


  1. Trailspace - Green Hiking and Backpacking Gear
  2. Grist - Of Classrooms and Closets: Eco-friendly supplies and clothes for back to school and beyond
  3. E: The Environmental Magazine - Head For The Hills
  4. US Environmental Protection Agency - Questions and Answers About Dioxin
  5. Energy Information Administration - Petroleum (Oil): A Fossil Fuel
  6. The Center For Health, Environment and Justice - PVC: The Poison Plastic
  7. Center for Health, Environment and Justice - PVC: The Poison Plastic
  8. The Green Guide - The Honorable Schoolbag
  9. Center For Environmental Health - Vigilant Mom Helps Sniff Out Lead
  10. PAN Germany - Directory for Organic Cotton and Organic Cotton Products
  11. Organic Consumers Association - Clothes for a Change
  12. Organic Trade Association - The O' Mama Report
  13. - Introduction to Organic Fibers
  14. National Organic Program - Organic Handling and Production Standards
  15. Organic Trade Association - 2005 US Organic Cotton Production & Marketing Trends
  16. Global - Industrial Hemp Investigative and Advisory Task Force Report
  17. Hamline University - Environmental Benefits of Industrial Hemp: Industrial Hemp can be used for Paper, Clothing and Energy
  18. The North Texas Daily - Texas company recycles plastic to make backpacks
  19. - Hair to Dye For
  20. - Recycling facts and figures
  21. US Environmental Protection Agency - Dyes and Pigments Production Wastes
  22. - Industrial Hemp Investigative and Advisory Task Force Report
  23. Arizona Industrial Hemp Council - Hemp vs. Marijuana
  24. Conscious Choice - Hey DEA, Hemp is Not Marijuana
  25. - Will your sofa make you sick?
  26. Green Facts - Scientific Facts on Dioxins
  27. US Environmental Protection Agency - Questions and Answers about Dioxins
  28. Green Facts - Scientific Facts on Phthalates
  29. Health Care Without Harm - Phthalates/DEHP
  30. The Chemical Heritage Foundation - The Great PVC Controversy
  31. The Green Guide - Product Report: Toys