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College students participating in the Wright Collegiate Challenge developed a program with Carbondale eco-wax maker mountainFLOW allowing skiers and shops to send ski wax with toxic fluorocarbons to the company for disposal. (Provided by mountainFLOW)

When the International Ski Federation — or FIS, the governing body of all things skiing — officially banned ski waxes with fluorocarbons last season, Peter Arlein kept getting the same questions from race techs and ski shops: What do we do with all this forever-chemical wax? 

“Shops were saying, ‘Well I guess we’ll just put it on our rental fleet or maybe heavily discount it and get it out of here. It’s too expensive to just throw away,’” said Arlein, who founded the eco-friendly mountainFLOW ski wax company in Carbondale in 2016. “I’m like, ‘We’re missing the point here. There has to be something we can do.’”

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

Arlein always wanted to provide a system for skiers, teams and shops to dispose of waxes with PFAS — or per-and-polyfluoroalkyl substances — the toxic chemicals that move from skis to water supplies to bodies, where the carcinogens accumulate and “may pose a health risk in extremely small quantities,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2022 ban on fluorocarbon ski waxes.  (Colorado lawmakers this year passed a law banning the sale or production of consumer items with PFAS.)

But he’s been busy running mountainFLOW, which produces his wildly popular plant-based, biodegradable eco-waxes. So outdoor industry students at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, outdoor MBA students at Western Colorado University in Gunnison and Colorado Mountain College students in Leadville stepped in with a plan. 

Those students — part of the Wright Collegiate Challenge — built a pilot program that collects forever-chemical ski waxes at shops in Denver, Golden and Salida. Skiers also can simply ship their stash of bad wax to Arlein’s shop in exchange for discounts on mountainFLOW eco-wax. (Arlein is waiting for guidance from the EPA on how best to destroy PFAs.)

“This was something we always wanted to do but it’s not a revenue driver. We are losing money on this, so it’s been hard to find the time to build, but it’s perfect for the Wright challenge and the college students have really run with it,” Arlein said. 

Outdoor industry rep Jeff Paulson, left, learns about mountainFLOW eco-wax from mountainFLOW CEO Peter Arlein at the mountainFLOW booth on the floor of Outdoor Retailer on Jan. 30, 2020 at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. (Andy Colwell, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Chuck Sullivan created the Wright Collegiate Challenge in 2019, connecting college kids with rural, outdoor-focused businesses to help address challenges and opportunities. The Wright — a nonprofit that connects entrepreneurs in rural communities to create networks that support innovation — worked with the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office to enlist students in supporting rural outdoor businesses in the state. 

“It’s really about developing career preparedness skills,” said Sullivan, who plans to expand the program into other rural schools in Western communities embracing outdoor recreation as a growing economic engine. “Communication, leadership and innovative thinking and being empowered to use those skills.”

This year, teams of students from the three schools also worked to help Grand Junction’s Mountain Racing Products — or MRP, which makes high-end mountain bike shocks and components — create more sustainable packaging. Another team worked with the San Luis Valley Great Outdoors group to refine a plan that will convert old rail lines into recreational trails. 

Last year the Wright college students helped the San Luis Valley group develop a marketing plan for its Sangre de Cristo Dark Sky Reserve. This year they honed a Rails to Trails-type business plan that could use dormant railroad right-of-ways as recreational connections between communities and trail networks. Students from different schools worked together on the plans, collaborating across campuses.

“It’s really amazing what these students have brought to the table each year, changing our perspective and giving us vision,” said Mick Daniel, the executive director of the San Luis Valley Great Outdoors nonprofit. “We don’t often have the capacity to explore every idea as in-depth as needed. This year was complicated and required a dive into private and public funding as well as railroad law. It’s a slow process that could take years but they put together the foundation of the work.”

The Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office counts the Wright Collegiate Challenge as a critical tool in its work to develop a stronger workforce to grow the outdoor economy. 

The office has helped judge the challenge since its inception. Samantha Albert, the deputy director of the recreation office, said she marveled at the groups pressing the students for big ideas and innovations.

“It really speaks to the Colorado culture that we have businesses and nonprofits and outdoor organizations that are willing to put so much trust in students to take on high-priority projects and really expect to get a really strong result,” Albert said. “This is helping build the next generation of strong, passionate leaders in the outdoor industry. It’s absolutely legitimizing the industry and it’s professionalizing the industry in a way that maybe people didn’t expect.”

Check out mountainFLOW’s Fluoro Wax Take-Back Program here and get those forever chemicals out of your basement in exchange for discounts and swag from mountainFLOW. 

Jason Blevins

The Colorado Sun — Email: Twitter: @jasonblevins