How to Be A Sustainable Surfer
Surfing is one of the best ways to develop a personal connection with the ocean. So it stands to reason that most surfers are keenly aware of the environmental issues facing our great blue planet - from plastic pollution to the noxious runoff of human industry.
Unfortunately, the very sport that makes us care about these issues has an ugly environmental footprint of its own. It doesn’t seem like the planet's health pulled any weight in the design of surf products.
In this article, I’ll walk you through the unsustainable aspects of the surf industry, and some of the awesome new alternatives that are aligning our favorite sport with our earth-loving values.
Sustainable surfboards haven’t really been a commodity since the 1930’s when they were still made of solid wood. In the last century, the surfboard has gone through a number of evolutions, moving away from balsa and towards lightweight materials that are less friendly to human and environmental health.
EPS in Surfboards
Most surfboards that you see today have blanks that are made of either expanded polystyrene (EPS) or polyurethane (PU) foam. If you haven’t heard, EPS - also known as Styrofoam - has been linked to cancer and a whole host of other health issues. Moreover, EPS can take 500 years to decompose and fills up an estimated 25% of space in the world’s landfills.
While bans on EPS food containers pepper the nation, there has been little concern for the substance’s use in surfboards until recently.
PU foam in Surfboards - A Brief History Lesson
On a fateful day in 2005, The Clark Foam factory - which manufactured 90% of the world’s polyurethane foam blanks - abruptly shut its doors. In a fax to suppliers explaining the shutdown, owner Gordon 'Grubby' Clark cited his factory’s non-compliance with environmental, workplace, and fire-related regulations. The FDA was coming after him.
Clark Foam was one of the last manufacturers to use highly toxic toluene diisocyanate (TDI) in its manufacturing. A wrongful death suit was filed against Clark Foam when a 36-year-old worker died of cardiac arrest, respiratory failure, inflamed and scarred lung tissue after spending 16 years working with TDI at the factory.
Because of Clark’s shutdown, most new surfboards blanks manufactured today are made of EPS. EPS is arguably more environmentally friendly than polyurethane foam - it is stronger, lighter, and can be recycled. But that doesn’t mean it’s good for the environment.
EPS surfboards are covered in epoxy resin, and PU boards are covered in either epoxy or polyester resin. Both epoxy and polyester resins are forms of plastic that are inert when cured, so they shouldn’t leach chemicals into the water.
Before these resins are hardened, however, they give off fumes that can cause skin irritation and respiratory damage. Inhaled epoxy dust will line the mucous membranes of your respiratory system, triggering serious allergic reactions.
Many resins are reinforced with fiberglass. The amalgam of foam blanks, resins, and fiberglass make mass-produced surfboards a prime example of a monstrous hybrid.
It would be remiss not to mention the most popular surfboard in the world - the Wavestorm. Sold at Costco for only $99, the Wavestorm has enabled lots of people to get in the water. In fact, over 100k Wavestorms are sold each year.
As if the affordability factor wasn’t enough incentive to buy a Wavestorm, Costco will take any used or damaged Wavestorm and give you a new one... entirely for free. Sure, it’s a good deal. But what happens to all those returned boards?
Usually, Costco sends returned items back to the vendor. Costco’s vendor is AGIT Global, a Taiwan-based manufacturer with a US headquarters in California. Unfortunately, neither Costco nor AGIT could confirm that returned Wavestorms get recycled.
That said, it would be extremely difficult to recycle a Wavestorm. Wavestorms have an EPS core fortified with wooden stringers, protected with HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene) bottom, and a barrier skin made out of a totally different material. Recycling the EPS alone would require stripping the skin and stringers from the board.
AGIT is behind a styrofoam-based quiver of other popular soft-top boards, like the StormBlade. The company has only made a vague statement regarding a commitment to sustainability.
Tips for Buying a Sustainable Surfboard
Buy a used board
Surfboards can last for decades if they’re cared for properly. And you can find fantastic boards online for significantly less than you’d pay for a new board. Start your search for a new-to-you board here:
Craigslist: Truth be told, all of my surfboards have come from Craigslist. It's one of the best resources for connecting with local sellers.
OfferUp: This is great resource for buying boards locally, but you can expand your search nationwide. Of course, shipping a board isn't cheap, so it is recommended that you only look for boards within driving distance.
Facebook Marketplace: Search for surfboards locally, and filter by price and condition. Marketplace also makes it super easy to reach out to sellers.
Usedsurf.com: This is a great site for serious surfers because they have some serious boards. You can also find used fins, or take advantage of their board-buy-back program.
Secondhandboards.com: This is just a site with LOTS of used boards. Search by location and find used boards for sale near you.
Buy from a Green(er) Board Manufacturer
Green surfboard initiatives are quite literally shaping the way surfboards are made.
Timberline Surfboards: Made in Santa Barbara, Timberline boards feature 100% recycled foam core blanks and skins made of an extremely strong, lightweight, and renewable wood called Paulownia Elongata. These boards are custom and hand-built. They might be more expensive than a mass-produced epoxy board, but they are also more durable - which ultimately lessens their environmental footprint.
EarthTech Surf: EarthTech stands out with it's zero-waste manufacturing system. According to the company, traditional surfboard manufacturing produces double the finished surfboard's weight in trash. So, EarthTech takes all the scraps and separates them for recycling. EPS foam blanks are sent for recycling, and the rest of the manufacturing waste is sent for upcycling into their sister brand, Greenlines Products.
LibTech: This shaper of surfboards, snowboards, skis, and skates has adopted a "zero hazardous waste" policy. Surfboards are made from with bio-plastics, 25 percent recycled EPS foam, and low VOC resins... while heating their factory with biodiesel. These boards are super strong and high performance.
Firewire Timbertek: Timbertek has an EPS core, but the deck skins are made from sustainably-grown Paulowina wood and coated in a lightweight bio-based resin. This shaper has reduced the exterior lamination in order to further reduce the board's footprint. I appreciate Timbertek's acknowledgement that their boards are "by no means sustainably built," but that they are taking steps to improve.
Solid Surf: Solid Surf is a San Diego-based surfboard shaper. Their blanks are made of steam-blown, TDI-free, compression resistant, recyclable EPS foam. The surfboard skin is made with a low-VOC resin and is reinforced with hemp instead of fiberglass, making it a lot friendlier to the human lungs.
Spooked Kooks: Looking for an earth-friendly alternative to a Wavestorm? Spooked Kooks makes better soft-top boards. Although the core is still EPS, the bottom is made of 100% recycled HDPE. Basically, all the hard plastic in Spooked Kooks boards are made with post-consumer recycled plastic. Unfortunately, these boards are only available in Australia.
Wetsuits are the MVP of surf equipment. We would not face the cold California water without them. But most wetsuits are made from neoprene, a synthetic rubber. The first neoprene used in wetsuits was derived from crude oil. Neoprene today is usually limestone-derived, which is a nonrenewable resource and also incredibly energy-intensive to extract. Both petroleum and limestone-derived neoprene are taxing the planet with heavy CO2 emissions.
There’s little that can be done with a used wetsuit… and there are a lot of used wetsuits, considering that most only last for a couple of seasons. Some honest efforts have been made to repurpose wetsuits as yoga mats and beer koozies.
Repurposing wetsuits doesn't solve the root of the problem - that non-renewable resources are used to make products with a very short life - but at least the wetsuits won’t go straight to the landfill.
Green Wetsuit Alternative:
Patagonia Yulex Wetsuit: Patagonia is the pioneer in sustainable wetsuits. The company has been on a mission to develop a neoprene-free wetsuit since 2008. In 2016 Patagonia landed on Yulex, a natural rubber derived from FSC-certified hevea trees. These trees can produce rubber for up to 30 years.
Patagonia goes a step farther by using a water-based, low VOC fabric lamination and recycled polyester as insulation. Overall, using natural rubber has reduced CO2 emissions in Patagonia’s wetsuit manufacturing by up to 80%. But Patagonia isn’t keeping Yulex a trade secret- they encourage other wetsuit manufacturers to also switch to natural rubber.
Cheer Wetsuits: Cheer followed in Patagonia’s footsteps and has developed its own line of hevea natural-rubber wetsuits. Cheer is an Australian-based company, but they occasionally partner with Outerknow to serve the United States market.
Hyperflex Greenpreene: Hyperflex’s neoprene-free wetsuit is formulated with natural rubber and other cool earth-friendly additives like sugarcane, plant oils, and oyster shells. The exterior fabric laminate is made from recycled water bottles. Better yet, the wetsuit comes in plastic-free packaging; it is delivered in a recycled cardboard box and hand-wrapped in recycled paper.
Neoprene wetsuits cannot be recycled at scale. Patagonia and RipCurl accept used wetsuits to be sent to upcycling facilities, but the reality is that most of these wetsuits won’t ever be given a second life.
If you would like to make sure your wetsuit is repurposed, try sending it directly to the upcycling facility. Here are a few that you can reach out to:
Suga: Suga makes yoga mats out of old wetsuits. To date, the company has diverted 32 tons of neoprene from the landfill. When you donate your old wetsuit to Suga, you will get a 10% off discount code in return. Suga will even take back your old Suga yoga mat and use it to make a new Suga yoga mat.
Lava Rubber: This New Jersey-based company turns neoprene wetsuits - as well as other usable scraps like gaskets and weatherstripping - into yoga mats, changing mats, coasters, and spoon holders.
Leading surf wax brands - including Dr. Zogs and Sticky Bumps - use paraffin to make their wax sticky. Paraffin is a highly-processed, petroleum byproduct also common in candles, hydraulic fluids, cosmetics, and a whole bunch of other stuff.
Besides paraffin, surf wax contains chemicals for texture and artificial colors and fragrances. Any wax that goes onto your surfboard will eventually go into the ocean.
Matunas: Matunas wax is organic, biodegradable, petroleum-free, and totally non toxic. The wax is made from locally sourced ingredients in Santa Cruz, California. The wrapper uses soy-based ink that is printed on 100% recycled paper.
YEW: Yew stands for Your Environment’s Wax, but it's also the noise that excited surfers make. The main ingredient in YEW is beeswax rather than paraffin, so no petrochemicals are involved. This wax smells really good even without any artificial fragrances. Every bar comes in a recyclable cardboard box.
The Famous Green Label: The Famous makes other less-green surf waxes, so we’re glad that they offer this one. The Green Label is petrochemical free, totally biodegradable. Its packaging is FSC certified and printed with soy-based ink.
Surf brands are beginning to recognize the need for sustainable, earth-friendly products and designs. Unprecedented creativity and intention towards developing petroleum-free, recyclable materials will quickly make this list outdated.