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Chalk – Another Kill-joy hobby-horse?

Here we go again! Another ‘should’ or ‘should-not’ being dictated by green-riding activists who wish to take the joy out of every stress-free activity we own. Chalk, it’s natural. What’s the problem? The only people complaining are the ones selling the alternatives! Right?

Well, it’s hard to tell how much climbers actually contribute to any of the issues that are being bandied about regarding chalk usage, but I do think that if we are to call ourselves environmentally aware, then we have a responsibility to find out what the claims are, and make a decision for ourselves.


The first, and most obvious issue is what it looks like. Do non-climbers want to walk their nature walks and see giant white streaks everywhere? Well no, probably not, so we brush, as best we can, to get rid of the ugly white marks. This is just a common courtesy to other human beings.


Secondly, are you aware of where your chalk comes from? So you know the substance we call ‘chalk’ is more than 95% magnesium carbonate. Almost all of the world’s MgCoȝ, is mined as a substance called magnesite, blasted and sludged, dried, centrifuged and crushed. Around 70% of this is extracted in China, and the regulations on environmental contamination are far from ideal. Airborne chalk dust settles to form sloughs of white barren land stretching away from the extraction plants. (Philips, Sept. 2019, Snow Brains)

Things are changing, as awareness grows of the impact on the surrounding landscape, but the energy intensive extraction procedures remain largely petroleum fueled. The remaining 30% of the mined chalk is mainly extracted from European and Canadian deposits, and the regulations are more stringent, so checking labels and brand information can help us chose a more environmental product due to location of manufacture. There is, however, a drive to find a source that does not involve mining at all. The most interesting, in my mind, is the byproduct of desalination facilities. These plants exist already, turning sea water into drinking water, the byproducts being salt and MgCoȝ. These are produced as raw chemicals, so there is much less impurity. Less impurity means less trapped moisture, and, in theory, a cleaner, more efficient product.

How much do climbers use?

Please read the article written by Matt Sparks from Pika.life at Chalkbloc.com. Apparently in 2020 there were 25 million climbers worldwide. Matt suggests a very conservative 3-4 bags of chalk (600g each) per year per climber. Simplifying the calculation to 2Kg per person per year, that is 50 million kg of chalk used per year by climbers alone. To me that sounds like a huge responsibility we climbers hold!

Local level

So what about my crag? The mines are someone else’s responsibility? Well, whether you are a chemist or not, you probably remember those fizzing acid-base reactions you saw in science class at school? The vinegar volcanoes and popping rockets? Those are usually demonstrated using vinegar, an acid, and sodium carbonate, a similar, but more reactive base than that of magnesium. I’m not saying that your chalkbag is in danger of exploding any time soon, but, over time, every micro-spill, every puff of chalk that you blow off your fingers, ends up somewhere it was not designed to be. Calcium Carbonate CaCoȝ, an even closer relative to MgCoȝ is used in the farming industry as lime to increase the pH of soil, allowing selective cultivation of crops. Ultimately, MgCoȝ has a pH of 9.3, it is not particularly soluble in water, but it does form a mildly alkaline solution, and has been shown to adversely affect the growth and reproduction of various moss and fern varieties (Hepenstrick, Bergamini and holderegger, Oct. 2020, Ecology and Evolution). So yes, it is a natural product, but if it arrives where it is not naturally formed, the surrounding habitats will definitely be effected to a greater or lesser extent.

What can we do?

Use less chalk! In my opinion the bottom line is that we need to reduce the amount of chalk we buy, and thus reduce the strain on the environment as a result of extraction. This is oh so easy for me to say! I have dry hands, and rarely need to chalk-up. However, what I suggest is not that we should chalk-up less often, but that we can be more aware of the amount we lose as well as the amount we use. We can stop drawing on the rocks, stop letting our kids play in our chalk-buckets, use magnetic-closing chalk bags and buckets that reduce spillage. We can limit and reduce the size of tick marks. Even if we brush these afterwards the chalk is released into the environment. We can switch to liquid chalk that reduces dust formation. We can source environmentally extracted chalk, or research products that reduce the amount our hands sweat so that we need less chalk. This last topic is also controversial, and there are various products out there, some more natural than others, but this is a whole different topic, and one for another time….

So, what is your opinion? Do we need to change our habits, or is this just another guilt-trip laid on us by the righteous? It’s your responsibility to make a choice.


Helen Dudley

Mum of Sebastian, 11, and Theo 8. Living in Arbonne-la-Forêt.

After making transitions from trad, to sport, to motherhood, Helen now lives in the Fontainebleau area dedicating as much time as possible to bouldering and playing in the forest with her two boys.