This post gives some background information about environmentally-friendly surfboards and surf gear, as goes into my super simple journey to pick up an EcoBoard.
Surfers are a heterogeneous group, and we approach the activity from different perspectives. To some it is a sport/career, to others a spiritual endeavor (though the “spirit” may just be the natural elements of the earth), and to others simply a way of life. The thing that unites all surfers is our love for bobbing around in the shallow zones in the ocean until a wave comes along, and then paddling our butts off to catch and ride it for a few seconds. It’s a particular type of activity in that it totally relies on natural processes of wind, ocean, tides, and reefs in order to work. A disruption to these natural elements yields a disruption in our ability to access the waves we need. Yet, oddly enough, to ride the waves, we for the most part rely on petrochemical sleds that damage these elements.
There seems to be a bit of a disconnect there, but the simple explanation is that it’s the result of the market at work. Polyurethane (PU) surfboard blanks were the best viable alternative following wood blanks. Wood blanks are heavy and expensive and difficult to shape. PU boards are light, cheap, and easy to shape, and they brought forth a revolution in shapes and in surfing itself. Expanded polystyrene (EPS) blanks gained some popularity in the late ’70s, but never obtained a foothold in the market (I got one custom EPS/Epoxy board in the late ’90s, shaped by Max McDonald and glassed by epoxy guru Clyde Beatty Jr – it was one of my favorite boards, and it lasted 5 years of heavy use). EPS is the standard packing material foam. The sustainable surf gear movement looks to be embracing EPS foam as the most viable way to move beyond traditional PU into something eco-friendlier. I’ll go into some of the benefits and drawbacks of EPS.
SustainableSurf.org seems to be the largest organization making a coordinated effort to bring sustainably-made surfboards to the mainstream. They have a couple of successful projects, they provide waste/recycling support at events, and they have the endorsement of SIMA and many surf brands. One of their projects, the EcoBoard Project, provides a framework for surfboard manufacturers to follow if they’re aiming to build a less-wasteful board. Similar to LEED certification, they classify the materials used to construct a surfboard, and if the overall constructions qualifies, they label it an “EcoBoard” and enter it into their registry. The board I recently custom-ordered was around #1400 in the registry.
Here’s my board! More details about it further below…
Criteria for an EcoBoard. It must be made from at least one of the following materials:
- Blank: foam made from minimum 40% recycled foam or at least 40% biological content
- Resin: epoxy resin made from minimum 15% biological content with low VOCs
- Alternative Structure: A surfboard structure made from sustainably sourced biological/renewable material (aka-wood) that provides the majority of the surfboard’s material and structural integrity – and therefore significantly reduces the amount of foam or resin needed to build the board
Item 1 mentions recycled foam. One of Sustainable Surf’s other projects, Waste to Waves, manages a foam collection service, and coordinates with Marko Foam to recycle the foam into Enviro Foam EPS surfboard blanks. They have foam collection bins throughout surf shops in Southern California, and periodically run collection drives at beaches. I recently moved, and have bought some furniture that came packed with foam. So I’ve donated quite a bit to them.
William McDonough and Michael Braungart, in their book Cradle to Cradle, suggest that to be truly sustainable, recycling is not sufficient. Instead, manufacturers/consumers need to operate on a different paradigm in which products are made entirely of organic materials that can decompose. We generally purchase products that are intended to last forever, but inevitably do not. Once a product has reached the end of its life, it ends up in a landfill or is recycled/upcycled. While in a landfill, it does not break down into anything nutritious or useful; but it does have a tendency to leech into the ground, into water supplies, and into oceans. And if it’s recycled, it degrades in value and is basically just delaying the inevitable trip to the landfill.
Enviro Foam has a smaller footprint than polyurethane (PU) foam, though it’s still a petrochemical that makes significant use of carbon-based energy. The process –
– involves melting and reforming the foam, and the final product is a 60/40 mix of recycled foam and virgin foam (this is somewhat similar to Patagonia’s plant-based Yulex Wetsuits – a fantastic innovation, but still relies on conventional petro materials to seal the deal).
Petrochemicals and the burning of fossil fuels for energy are not sustainable: they are the product of a process that took hundreds of millions of years to shove a lot of carbon elements deep under the earth. As these elements were tucked away, atmospheric conditions changed to allow life to flourish. We are unearthing many of these elements in just a few hundred years, which is destabilizing the atmosphere and the ocean (which absorbs about 30% of carbon dioxide and is responsible for much of the earth’s photosynthesis). The ocean is acidifying because of excess hydrogen ions from the influx of H2CO3 entering it. The acidification is weakening the calcium carbonate shells of many phytoplankton (and other creatures), making them less photosynthetically productive.
Basically, we are living in a closed system. If the toxic surf wax we use falls off our boards, it doesn’t disappear. More likely, it gets added to the food chain. If we ding our boards, bits of toxic resin flakes off. When our boards are trashed, they go to the dump. And the productions of most of our surf gear is very inefficient, wasteful, and dirty.
As surfers, our environmentally-friendly options for equipment are not good, but they are less bad.
A few months prior to ordering the board, I checked in with my shaper, Matt Parker of Album Surfboards, to see if he could make an EcoBoard for me. Turns out he uses Marko blanks all the time, including many Enviro Foam ones. So he was totally on board! I’d been eyeing his Polyphonic design for a while. It’s one of his most popular shapes, and it just looked perfect to me. Voluminous enough to float/paddle well, short enough to whip around, rockered enough to get into steep, barreling waves. And I figured an EPS core would make it extra-floaty and light.
For shapers, there isn’t any difference between virgin EPS and recycled EPS. But there is a difference between EPS and PU. PU tends to be a little easier to shape. It is by far the dominant type of blank. For surfers, many profess to notice a difference between the two. EPS tends to have a little less flex (a slight amount of flex is desirable), and it’s super light (some people think it’s too light!). But there isn’t an eco-friendly version of PU. So, if there is to be a shift toward eco-friendly boards, as Sustainable Surf and many environmentally conscious surfers are hoping, then there will have to be a massive shift to EPS boards. Like I’ve mentioned, I loved my previous EPS board. I’ve been surfing for 23 years, and I care about my equipment, but I’m not Mick Fanning, running through 92 boards in a year and analyzing minute differences between each one. I would not cry if I never got to ride a PU board ever again.
For now, going Eco means paying a premium. I’m fine with that. The market decides the costs/value of these products. At the moment, conventional boards are externalizing their costs, so that consumers don’t directly have to pay (we have to pay it later, via the crappifying of the environment). As demand for EcoBoards goes up, the prices will drop. And, encouragingly, big shapers are offering EcoBoards. Channel Islands has a “make this an ECOBOARD” option on their online order form. And Firewire primary uses recycled EPS and bio-resin for their boards. On that note, my board uses Entropy Resin – a bio-based resin. Bio-resins is one of the biggest challenges in the quest for eco-boards. Once again, this resin is a blend of eco-friendly and conventional.
Other potential options: Agave Surfboards are closer to a truly sustainable surfboard. It’s a very exciting project. But as of yet the process hasn’t reached the US. Mushroom foam seems to have the potential to totally shift surfboard production away from petrochemicals. They state that it could be used for surfboard blanks, but they don’t have any examples, and they didn’t reply to my query [UPDATE: looks like prototypes have ALMOST been made!]. If you slog into the Swaylocks message boards, you’ll find a lot of discussion about alternative types of foam. My assumption is that mushroom foam isn’t consistent enough in density for surfboard blanks. But I’m guessing that some shaper out there is testing it.
So, more surfers are becoming aware of the options, more shapers are offering the options, and more manufacturers are innovating to see what’s possible. As some of the surf industry barons struggle these days to sustain their 140 worldwide stores, $1 million surf contests, and stoked but wary audience, smaller companies have fulfilled the modest demand for eco-friendly, down to earth gear.
One such company, Wave Tribe, makes tailpads from cork (tailpads are traditionally constructed out of petrochemicals, just like wetsuits, wax, leashes, and boardbags!), along with other eco-friendly products. I picked one up, along with some bees wax. I’ve only surfed on my new board once, but the tailpad was great. It feels so much like a conventional tailpad that it had me wondering if it is, like many of the other eco products I’ve mentioned here, a 60/40 blend! The bees wax doesn’t quite have the tackiness of the super toxic crap we usually put on our boards, but I didn’t slip once. Matunas Organic Surf Wax might be tackier, in my opinion.
Lastly, I picked up a recycled boardbag from The Progress Project. The boardbag is recycled from a billboard. It’s super high quality (better than a traditional boardbag). It is, of course, a petrochemical product. But it’s less bad! That is indeed progress, in my opinion.
I better wrap this up! I hope you found some of this useful. I tried to add a lot of links to the post, so that you can explore things further. Here’s another link: a life cycle analysis is surfboards and surfing (it doesn’t look at recycled EPS, but it looks at many other things).