Written by Aaron Gerry
The climber’s paradox
The equipment that keeps us safe has an expiration date for its usefulness and eventually has to be retired. What to do with the gear?
You can’t recycle it, not in a traditional sense anyway. So we throw away these once indispensables. All that technical matter that let’s us enjoy the outdoors—dashed and trashed—an eye sore filling in the very nature we love.
Jennifer Wood comes from a long-line of climbers, but she wasn’t one of them. A break in the chain, until she met James Dickinson.
Jennifer and James weren’t entrepreneurs. But they knew how to be resourceful, to work with their hands, to fix things up. Then Jennifer found out she was pregnant. Idle hands and an artist’s creativity bred something reimagined.
The young couple didn’t have a lot of money. They begged and borrowed and cleverly sourced materials to renovate their home. Instead of contributing to the growing mounds of trash they found they could help reduce it.
A bump and a business
Dirtbags Climbing began out of a reluctance to throw away old climbing gear. They didn’t want to perpetuate the problem of single use, one-and-done products anymore.
“The outdoor industry, at the end of the day, is really a polluting industry because it uses lots of plastic based materials: polypropylene, nylon, all these fibers that go into equipment. You can’t melt down the fibers in climbing ropes. It’s extremely difficult to recycle them. They will remain on the planet forever,” James elaborates one of the contradictions of outdoor sports.
Jennifer and James encountered the challenge directly: They had old ropes lying around. Past trips were wound into the frayed threads and they were reluctant to toss them; they were mementos of places, people, trips.
They decided to turn the ropes into rugs: Cut out the core (new drying lines!), iron the sheathing flat, zigzag stitch it up and hey, that looks like fabric. Turned out other people liked the idea, and the designs.
A circular economy in Cumbria
The 1968 Singer sewing machine Model 239 whirls to life and taps away with drumbeat precision: thump-thump-thump-thump. Pastel cords are braided along a hanging rack like melted Crayola crayons, an oozing kaleidoscope down the wall. The large front window emanates the artistic spirit from within, and welcomes the petering day’s light towards the craft perched on the workbench.
Through and through, the Dirtbags workshop is the embodiment of the company’s mission: It is made entirely from recycled materials sourced from construction sites, as local as they can get it, and is solar powered. Everything made within is from materials otherwise sent to landfill.
“We don’t want to be just another brand,” James enumerates. “The fact that it’s made in the Lake District, our customers learn where the ‘raw’ materials come from, they know us. Each piece is unique. We’re not churning out 25 of the same bag.”
For Jennifer, a self-described introvert, she enjoys that the artistic expression of her inner world emerges through the materials and helps form a connection with the customer: “I like that it’s just tools in a shed, that our customers can call us up with a custom order and it’s us they talk to, that it’s very personal.”
Around the community, they have a symbiotic relationship with the local businesses. There are many outdoor companies that caters to the tourism in the Lake District. Year over year they generate waste with cast off material: old life jackets (waterproof material, buckles, straps!), rucksacks (fabric, zippers!), ropes (see above!), etc.
These businesses are happy to give Dirtbags their waste to turn into beautiful “new” goods, which goes back into the Lake District economy. Around and around.
A new reality
If we want to enjoy climbing sustainably, we need to alter our consumption patterns from an environmental to economic perspective.
“We are part of that generation where our parent’s feel privileged that they can constantly add to their wardrobes, buy new cars, [you name it]. We can’t keep up with that, and we don’t want to keep up with that,” Jennifer chuckles, though conveying a serious new reality.
Partly circumstance, partly self-determination, and partly living a life they are proud of, Jennifer and James “get a great sense of satisfaction by doing everything ourselves.”
They continue, “It comes from not having a lot of money. It’s out of necessity. We have been lucky to learn a lot of skills; James’ dad was an engineer, built houses. You acquire craft skills, wood work, metal work. Makes you realize how resourceful you can be.”
Anyone can make a small change to their habits.
“Be mindful of the way you use products and materials,” Jennifer urges. “Don’t throw things away that you can use or that someone else can make use of. If things continue as is we’ll be living in a very polluted world.” Each small action adds up.
Dirtbags Climbing is giving back to the sport they love, through the community they live in, in order to create a more sustainable environment.
“We live in a beautiful area, and it’s frustrating when you find rubbish about. You realize this is a special place that you need to keep special,” James punctuates with a final note.
We all need to do our part to keep it special, for generations to come.
You can learn more about the work of Dirtbags Climbing (and/ or buy one of their products), explore their community partners, and get inspiration for how to recycle some of your own climbing gear on their website.
I for one felt compelled to make my own bouldering brush after our call. What will your project be?
This blog post was originally published at aarongerry.com on June 20, 2019
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