To an uninformed observer such as myself, surfing can seem like one of the most eco-friendly sports around. It’s a relatively small community (since there is only so much coastline in the world to be surfed) and surfers only need their boards and suits to hit the waves. What isn’t immediately apparent is that most big-brand surfboards are a large slab of petroleum-based polyurethane doused in toxic polyester resin. If you also consider the adhesives, patches, and petroleum-based waxes necessary to maintain the board, you’ve got yourself a pretty unsustainable hobby.
San Francisco-based Michael Stewart and San Clemente-based Kevin Whilden hope to revolutionize the way surfers view the sport altogether. The pair founded a nonprofit, Sustainable Surf, which aims to “transform the surf culture and industry into the ultimate expression of the sustainable lifestyle in the modern world.”
For elite surfers the carbon footprint of a board isn’t as important as how well it rides. So while the pros might not buy from the bottom line, they still may not be concerned with what went into their ride. To borrow an analogy from Forbes writer Todd Woody, “A Nascar driver doesn’t particularly care about how many miles per gallon his souped-up Chevy Malibu gets, and surfers likewise obsess about speed.”
Polyurethane boards account for about 75% of the market. Polyurethane can be toxic when not fully reacted and it usually ends up in a landfill once it breaks or gets replaced. Scott Cooney, an adjunct professor in the sustainability program at University of Hawai’i estimates that the ratio of carbon emitted per weight of product is 110:1, whereas most consumer goods average in the 4:1 range.
Because of these astounding facts, Sustainable Surf has launched the EcoBoard project, advocating for more sustainable recycled boards. Boards made of expanded polystyrene can be made of recycled Styrofoam “blanks”. The group has been pushing for big names like Jordy Smith and Joel Parkinson to ride their boards and spread the word. Reef has been backing their “Waste to Waves” initiative, which collects styrofoam packaging at surf shops to make new blanks. Stewart and Whilden still need to win over surfboard manufacturers like Santa Cruz-based William “Stretch” Riedel, who has been making expanded polystyrene blanks and using bioresins since 1979 but hasn’t been publicizing it. Stretch boards are lighter and stronger because of it, making them the Tesla to the traditional polyurethane Hummer.
Faster, stronger, and sustainable; what else could you ask for? Cheaper, maybe, for these boards will be marked up at least $100 compared to their less eco-friendly counterparts. Then again, how much is a clean future worth to you?