As Kelly Slater puts it "I think when a surfer becomes a surfer, it's almost like an obligation to be an environmentalist at the same time."
And indeed, many initiatives around sustainability in the surf industry do find a great echo in the public's ears. But one might wonder why are 80% of surfers so inclined to act in a sustainable way (3), or even if the surf industry really needs to question itself.
Photo Credits©: Hawaii Bishop Museum
The ocean is home for surfers. It is what connects them all to fulfil their passion around the globe. But human activity and pollution threaten the balance of its ecosystem. More specifically, more than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped in our oceans every year, and over 90% of all seabirds have been found with plastic in their stomach (2).
The time has arrived to act, at our own level. As surfers, the ocean is inseparable from our practice and is a key component of our shared culture.
At the origin of surfing, Polynesians used wood to build their wave-riding material, causing no harm to their habitat and embrassing the harmony between their physical body, their free spirit and the nature all around them. Their boards were strong, locally produced and could easily be recycled into anything that would require wood.
But as surf started to develop and expand all over the continents, the seek of optimized performance, the capitalistic globalization and various chemical discoveries deeply moved away surfboard manufacturing from its origins.
Today, 95% of a modern surfboard is made out of petrochemical materials, the same toxic materials that were widely introduced in the industry in the late 1950's. The components of a surfboard travel around 10 000 km before we can ride it And a 3-kilogram-surfboard produces 6 kilograms of toxic and non-recyclable waste.
According to a Sustainable Surf survey (3), more than 80% of surfers are concerned with ocean's health, more than 80% of them already consider having a strong tendency to behave in an environmentally friendly way. Paradoxically, surfing boards produced with that kind of background is quite far from living in accordance with our goals of sustainability. Without us noticing, we have become unsustainable.
Fortunately, we do have the power and means to revolve the system, which does not mean to compromise at any point with high-performance. Surfing is a very demanding sport which appeals for excellence. All the more so as the practice has evolved a lot since the heavy wooden surfboards times.
In that respect, the first key to improve our behaviours as surfers and regain our sustainable spirit is to share the knowledge we have and educate people on simply how our surfboards are made and where they actually come from.
There are 3 main classical ways of producing modern surfboards.
However, despite their difference, they all share the same dirty secret: they all use the same blanks!
A blank is a cut piece of foam, made out polyurethane or EPS. And only very few actors possess the shares of this market. If the former monopoly Clark Foam closed up in 2005 (for environmental reasons), today US blanks and Marko Foam or Arctic Foam control a great share of the global blank market.
The problem of blanks is that their toxicity have a quite negative impact on the environment and on shapers' health. But these blanks are still used, exactly like they were used 60 years ago, when there were no real awareness about sustainability.
Even more worrying, low-cost mass manufacturers such as Wavestorm are being more and more successful, and are planning to sell 100 000+ of their boards next year.
We believe these non-durable boards can be sold so well because there is a real lack of transparency on what is behind our dear surfboards. This is why we think it is essential to spread more knowledge on how our boards are produced and what concrete impact they might have on our planet.
So let's dive deeper into the reality of surfboard manufacturing.
To better understand the environmental impact of a surfboard, let's first shell out a rather classic modern surfboard.
Image Credits©: Noora Vartiainen (1)
As mentionned previously, whatever the manufacturing type, the core of a surfboard is made out of a rigid polyurethane (PU) foam or expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam. If both materials have their own technical properties (EPS is lighter, PU is easier to shape), they both come from petrochemical industry. The ecological impact of the core material is extremely heavy on the overall surfboard impact. According to Sustainable Surf (5), the core accounts for 26% of the total carbon footprint of a surfboard. With 96% of the impact of foam coming from the raw materials extraction and processing, the best way to reduce the impact of the blank comes from using recycled content.
After the raw cut foam being shaped and sanded with more accuracy (definition of the rocker, thickness of the rails, tail and nose, etc.), it is coated with several layers of fiberglass cloth and polyester or epoxy resins, creating the hard shell of the board.
If epoxy resin emits up to 50% fewer VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds, easily breathed by shapers and toxic) than polystyrene (PE) resin and has good physical properties (lighter, stronger), polystyrene resine is still the most used. Indeed 80% of surfboards(4) are coated with PE resine because it is easier and quicker to work with and it is cheaper.
The ecological impact of the resin on the overall surfboard carbon footprint depends on the material used. Indeed, it counts for 22% of the CO2 impact from a PU/PE board (polyurethane foam coated with polystyrene resin), and 37% from an epoxy/EPS board. (5)
Fiberglass is mainly used for its flexible and strength properties, it is also cheaper than carbon fiber and can be molded in various complex shapes. Numerous alternative to fiberglass already exist (bamboo, flax, etc.), but they can impact performance, durability or more simply the colour or aesthetic of the board. According to Sustainable Surf**, "because the overall CO2 footprint contribution of fiberglass is only 5%, alternatives to fiberglass are unlikely to result in any major environmental benefit through displacing fiberglass alone".
This decomposition shows us that the main challenges to make a surfboard more sustainable through its material (that can be up to 70% of the total surfboard carbon footprint) are definitely the foam core and the resin.
If we want to look at the overall environmental impact of a given surfboard, it is necessary to consider its dynamic lifetime, from manufacturing to the end-of-life management, through distribution and usage.
According to the lifecycle analysis conducted by California-based non-profit group Sustainable Surf, a typical 6’0” short board, weighing approximately 2.5 kilograms emits over 270 kilograms of CO2 during its lifecycle, spanning from manufacturing to disposal. (Mellis, Charlotte. 05/2016)
The lifecycle of a classic modern surfboard can be detailed in 5 phases as follow (1):
These steps are usually processed by different intermediaries often operating from very distant locations. Each of them produces more carbon emissions, more toxic waste and take a margin.
The shaping process also requires artisanal shaping material such as masks, sandpaper, gloves, paintbrushes, etc.
A shaper faces health threats by breathing harmful pollutant VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) when sanding and glassing the board.
Noora (1) : 50% of a board is loss during the process. The biggest percentage of the loss comes from foam dust. The other part of loss consist of resin drops, dust and fiberglass. The fiber glass rest over can be used for repairing old boards.
This leads us to question ourselves and manufacturers on how we can all act on this lifecycle to make more sustainable surfboards.
Good news is, plenty of solutions co-exist to reconnect surfing with sustainability. But not at any cost. For instance, surfers should not have to compromise with performance to ride a more environmental friendly surfboard, or have a less durable surfboard.
We have listed some criteria that we think an eco-surfboard should embrace to meet our expectations and to lastingly change our habits:
Photo Credits©: HEXA Surfboard @hexasurfboard
Keeping these criteria in mind, we believe that there is 3 main sources of innovation to make this change happen:
Get inspired: The ECOBOARD label guides manufacturers towards sustainable technical solutions already on the market, and the French brand Notox innovates by making corkwood surfboards.
Get inspired: Alltroc in Hossegor offers to sell your old ride gear for you and enables you to buy some second-hand, and Awayco completely change our relationship with surfboards by offering online surfboard booking wherever you are.
Get inspired: Whoelse than the one who has been the leader in the eco-board movement for years, Ryan Harris, to close this article with inspiration? Founder of Earth Technologies, he has been on the forefront of surfboard sustainable alternatives and is the creator of the first Zero-Waste surfboard production facility.
As you might guess, we have our own vision on how to make the surfboard industry actively positive for our environment. So keep posted to know more in our next article...
Hey, before you leave (first of all thanks for having read until there), please tell us more about you!
Tell us by commenting down here or by sending us an email, we'll be thrilled to know more about your opinion!
(1) "The New Wave Of Sustainable Surf Industry", Noora Vartiainen, 2018
(2) "The Facts", Plastic Oceans
(3) "Deep Blue Survey", Sustainable Surf, 2018
(4) "Les Matériaux nécessaires à la fabrication d'une planche", Sebas R, 2014, Mundi Surf
(5) Guide to "ECOBOARD" Surfboards, Sustainable surf