The sky is solid blue, the winds are balmy and you’re looking out onto the horizon as lumps of water start to approach. Sublime nature surrounds you and, yet ironically, your body is pressed against a surfboard that’s likely contributing to the deterioration of it. For years, there’s been talk of an oncoming green wave in the surf industry. Now, it looks like it’s time to ride it.
Surfing is often likened to a spiritual experience. It’s no surprise, then, that some surfers characterize the traditional approach of building surfboards as more of a religion, rather than an industry. However, this religion is undeniably ruining the environment that surfers cherish most—Mother Nature—and many are ready to convert to a more sustainable alternative.
Conventionally, surfboards are constructed from harmful substances, which can pollute the environment, negatively impact the health of people working with these materials and leave a concerning carbon footprint.
Considering that surfing as a sport seems to show signs of growth, this inevitably poses a problem. Although data on the number of global surfers is spotty and rather non-comprehensive, in May 2012, The Economist reported that the number of surfers across the globe increased from 26 million to 35 million between 2001 and 2011. Not only that, the surf industry in the US was estimated to be worth $7.2 billion in 2006 the US alone, according to a study by the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association.
Slowly—but surely—surfers seem to be converting to a more sustainable approach. In the last decade or so, more and more nonprofit organizations, such as The Surfrider Foundation, Sustainable Surf and Save the Waves, have been cropping up around the world with the aim of creating more awareness about environmental issues concerning surf as well as campaigning for a more eco-friendly approach in the industry.
According to life cycle analysis studies conducted by California-based nonprofit group Sustainable Surf, a typical 6’0’’ shortboard that weighs about 5.5 lbs emits over 600 lbs of CO2 during its life cycle spanning from manufacturing to disposal.
When Daniel Del Toro first started shaping surfboards, he was sure that working with polyurethane boards and polyester resin wouldn’t be his kind of game. “It’s way too toxic,” said Del Toro, who originally founded Surf Organic Boards—a California-based online shop selling environmentally friendly surf and skate products—in 2008.
A couple of years later, Del Toro met and began surfing with David Purser III, who later joined him as a business partner at Surf Organic Boards.
“Almost all of the big companies use foam blanks. They use oil-based resin and oil-based nylon cloth, which makes for extremely light and easily breakable surfboards that will likely leave a permanent mark on our planet. Also, they make hundreds of boards a day that are barely—if at all—touched by human hands,” explained Purser.
In contrast to the majority of mass surf manufacturers, Surf Organic Boards—also know as Surfo —claims to only buy and sell from eco-friendly sources. But what makes it different from other sustainable surfboards shops out there is company’s Mushroom Surfboard, aptly dubbed ‘El Portobello.’
For the prototype of this unique board, Surfo worked alongside Ecovative, a New York-based company behind a patented mushroom material technology that is used in the core of the surfboard. The technology, known as Mushroom® Materials, consists of fully compostable materials that grow in Ecovative’s ‘factories’ as an alternative to unsustainable petroleum-based plastics or foams, such as Styrofoam. In theory, these materials are so safe you could take a bite out of them.
But will the surf industry be likely to embrace this type of innovation in the long-run?
“They already have actually,” responded Del Toro. “They’ve embraced the concept of it, but the actual board that we produced for the first run was a little heavier than they expected. We’re never going to be at that performance level until we get further development into it, but we obviously need more capital.”
Contrary to conventional methods of sanding down rectangular surfboard blanks to a particular shape, Mushroom Surfboards have a mould that the blank can grow into. Considering that a blank takes ten days to grow and an additional three days to dehydrate, Surfo can only produce two surfboards a month. From a business standpoint, this is a problem, which is why the company is on the brink of launching an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for further product development.
Ultimately, if the Mushroom Boards are to take off, Surfo will have to consider whether or not surfers will sacrifice performance to be eco-conscious. Not only that, it’ll have to offer a variety of options for style customization as well as figure out an efficient way to produce boards.
Another realm that’s riding the green wave is ‘handplane bodysurfing’ or ‘handboarding,’ a growing trend among surfers because of the added speed the sport generates on the waves. For instance, Enjoy Handplanes is a California-based shop that makes handplanes out of a different Ecovative compressed product called ‘Myco Board’ as well as broken surfboards and wrecked blanks. The idea is to minimize the waste going to landfills and reuse materials that cannot be recycled.
Ed Lewis, co-founder of Enjoy Handplanes, was just getting into the sustainable surf movement around 2008, when there was still quite some resistance to bringing new materials into building a surfboard. “There are these traditions that have been kept alive since the beginning of surf, in the 60s, and part of that was the materials used—which would have been polyurethane, foams and polyurethane resins,” explained Lewis. “In a way, changing these traditions felt like a big threat to people…It was kind of a mental hurdle for a big portion of people who had been into surfboards and surfing for a long time.”
After trying handboarding for the first time, Lewis said he stopped surfing for three months because he was having so much fun with the new sport. Eventually, he began glassing handplanes using broken surfboards with his business partner, Kipp Denslow, and started receiving orders for them from around the world. “We made one, and then made two, and then made 10, and then just kept making and making,” Lewis recalled. “Then we got picked up by Patagonia. From there, we got shot around the world because they have stores all over and it gave us credibility and stability.”
Though Lewis said the sustainable surf movement had a slow start, he has noticed the tide turning in the past five years. “The materials got better, the alternative blanks got better, the people making them—the shapers and glassers—got better with these new materials and, suddenly, you can’t even tell the difference between a classic surfboard and a newer epoxy,” he said.
Given that surfers are the ones plunging into nature on a regular basis, it makes sense that they’d want to become more conscious of their impact on the oceans they’re submerged in or the coral reefs they glide past. With the the selection of eco-friendly boards growing and large surfboard manufacturers, like Firewire, adopting eco-friendly standards as laid out by Sustainable Surf, it looks like the next wave will only get greener.
Head over to Huck Magazine for an interview with Surf Organic Boards founder, David Purser.
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