Photo: Sarah Lee.
Surfboard Manufacturers Driving Change
Originally published in Adventure Sports Journal.
A surfer’s board represents the ultimate tool for communing with nature, and conjures images of azure blue waves curling across rainbows of reef. However, this emblem of environmentalism is tainted by a dirty secret.
For more than half a century, the majority of surfboards produced worldwide have consisted of polyurethane foam laminated with fiberglass and polyester resin. These materials are toxic to the shapers that work with them, and to the environment: traditional methods for shaping “poly” boards generate almost twice as much waste as they do end product. In addition, volatile solvents are used throughout the manufacturing process.
Expanded polystyrene (EPS) blanks covered with fiberglass and epoxy resin present a less toxic alternative. Sustainable Surf offers different levels of “ecoboard” certification for epoxy boards that contain at least 19% biological components. To qualify for the higher “Gold Level” certification, the outer shell must use bio resins and the core of the board must contain at least 25% recycled product. The carbon footprint of these ecoboards is about 30% less than traditional poly boards, according to Sustainable Surf. For the average shaper, these materials are more expensive than those used to produce traditional poly boards, and require a longer curing time.
Firewire Surfboards, the largest producer of such boards, is located in Carlsbad, CA. In 2014, the company transitioned its entire production line to certified ecoboards, and their manufacturing facility uses only biodegradable citrus solvents. However, CEO Mark Price says that surfers have been slow to accept more environment-friendly construction methods. “Even though surfers care about the environment, when it comes to a surfboard, it’s still viewed as a piece of equipment so the performance, the shape, the brand, the price, all of those product attributes tend to carry a lot more weight than its eco certification.”
“Internally we think all of our customers care about [sustainable products], but it’s probably not true,” agrees Lib Tech founder Mike Olson. Originally launched as an environmental snowboard factory, Lib Tech brought an innovative line of surfboards to market in 2012, and began manufacturing boards for the popular brand …Lost in 2015. The boards are crafted in Washington from 25% recycled Nitrogencell foam layered with basalt, hexzylon, and magnesium fiber, and sealed with bio-matrix resin. In addition to being exceptionally durable, they don’t require sanding, eliminating a large factor in labor and production waste. “Being eco doesn’t cost more money,” claims Olson, “unless you are comparing polyester to epoxy.”
This summer, Firewire will release Woolight, a line of boards laminated with sheep’s wool instead of fiber glass. “The significance of Woolight for us is to show that there are natural fibers that are every bit as good as what humans have developed,” says Price. For now, Woolight has a slightly higher carbon footprint than epoxy boards, since sheep contribute to greenhouse gases by burping and farting large quantities of methane. “When we get to the point that we can biodegrade surfboards, wool is going to beat fiberglass by a mile,” says Price.
Unfortunately, surfboard recycling still has a long way to go. At some point, a string of strategically placed recycling centers could make this a reality, but at the moment, the difficulty lies in the logistics: shipping surfboards is expensive. According to Olson, the best thing manufacturers can do for now is make surfboards last longer. Lib Tech surfboards are exceptionally durable, and designed to have a longer lifespan than polyester or epoxy surfboards.
Olson and Price claim that environmental stewardship has been baked into their companies since inception. Both cite control of the production process, and the fact that they operate on economies of scale as key factors in ecoboard advancement. “The small board builders don’t have the R&D budget to innovate,” says Price.
Santa Cruz shaper Ashley Lloyd Thompson is at least one exception. Early in her career, she began experimenting with biofoam and using epoxy resin on polyurethane. These days, her magic recipe is EPS laminated with flax cloth, which gives boards a woodlike quality and dampens vibration.
Though all of the boards Thompson shapes are certified ecoboards, customers rarely ask for them. “With my niche, it’s a little trickier to get people on board [with EPS],” Thompson says. Most of her customers order single fin longboards, and are hesitant to try a construction method different from what they have been riding for years. Though Thompson estimates that she is giving up some profit, she is committed to making ecoboards for her own health and the health of the planet. “Sometimes it’s not sustainable for me, and that’s really hard,” she admits.
In addition to exploring less toxic surfboard production methods, Thompson also does her best to mitigate the waste stream. Excess resin is collected and reused for art projects.
“Everyone always talks about capitalism as the engine of economic growth,” says Price. “It also has an exhaust, like any engine, or waste stream.” Firewire has already reduced landfill waste per board built by 95% in the past two years, and aims to reach zero landfill waste by 2020. “Most of the things we’ve done exist in other industries, we just need to bolt them onto the surfboard industry,” Price muses.
Firewire and Lib Tech both use densifiers to compress foam dust. Lib Tech reuses the material in new foam blanks while Firewire repurposes it for garden paving stones.
As companies make huge strides with ecoboard production, why aren’t more surfers following suit and putting their money where their mouth is? According to Sustainable Surf, ecoboards only account for 10-15% of the global market. Price thinks that since most of the top pros are still wedded to poly boards, “it creates a perception in the market that they represent the pinnacle of performance.” As Price points out, polyurethane and EPS are just raw materials, and “there are many different ways to build a surfboard.” Price, Olson, and Thompson, all surfers themselves, ride ecoboards and insist that the performance is equal to, if not better, than that of poly boards. Kelly Slater and Rob Machado, arguably two of the best surfers in the world, both ride ecoboards, and Slater holds a controlling interest in Firewire. Price thinks it’s only a matter of time before epoxy becomes more widespread than polyester.
In this day and age, it’s rare to see companies leading consumers toward sustainable products without a clear monetary incentive. As a surfer who writes about environmental issues, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a hypocrite—more than half of my quiver is comprised of poly boards. “I think we all are hypocrites on this issue, to a lesser or greater degree,” says Price. “When we get on our pedestal talking about what needs to be done, we also need to, in the same breath, apologize.”