Catch Green Surf Wave

Surfing might seem like an earth-friendly sport, but a closer look reveals that the environmental impact may be more than you realize. Photo c1967 at Old Man’s Beach, San Clemente, California.Surfing might seem like an earth-friendly sport, but a closer look reveals that the environmental impact may be more than you realize. Photo c1967 at Old Man’s Beach, San Clemente, California.

Surfing might seem like an earth-friendly sport, but a closer look reveals that the environmental impact may be more than you realize. Photo c1967 at Old Man’s Beach, San Clemente, California.

Appeared in:

  • Orange Coast Voice, Dec. 18, 2009
  • Santa Monica Daily Press, May 15, 2009
  • Orange Coast Voice blog, April 24, 2009

A Wave of Green Hits Surfing Industry
by Sarah S. Mosko, Ph.D.

At first glance, surfing might seem like an inherently earth-friendly sport. Surfers paddle out and catch waves by sheer force of will and muscle. No need for fossil fuel-burning speed boats to get around. And, surfers have a reputation for caring about ocean pollution.

But a closer look reveals that, like most human activities, the environmental impact is far from nil and, consequently, there’s a nascent movement within the surfing industry to clean up it its act.

The Essentials
The bare necessities of surfing are surfboard, wetsuit, good waves and wheels to and fro. The waves are courtesy of Mother Nature, but the choices surfers make to otherwise outfit themselves determine the toll on the environment.

Lightweight polyurethane (PU) boards swathed in fiberglass cloth and polyester resin have been the industry mainstay since heavy wood boards were ditched in the 1950s. Because both PU and polyester are petrochemicals, the enviro impact starts with environmental degradation during petroleum extraction. Then there is the emission of VOCs (volatile organic chemicals) during PU synthesis from two petrochemicals – a ‘polyol’ plus a highly volatile and toxic isocyanate toluene compound called TID. The foam molding stage eats up plenty of energy, and more air polluting VOCs are given off when the board is glassed.

The mainstream alternatives to PU boards are made of expanded polystyrene (EPS), another foam derivative of petroleum and with its own enviro drawbacks – like the scrap waste generated carving the blanks out of foam blocks. EPS boards’ claim to being easier on the environment rests on the necessity for an epoxy resin which emits about 75% less VOCs than the polyester counterpart.

Greener Surfboards: Real efforts to put out greener surfboards are underway in California, although few surfers are clued in to such options.

In a move away from petroleum-sourced materials, Ice-Nine Foam Works in Orange, California, sells a custom PU blank dubbed ‘the cane’ because the polyol component comes from sugar beet scrap material. Company owner John Stillman chose sugar over soy, another option, because using soy would subtract from the food supply. The eco-footprint of the cane boards is also improved by the replacing the TDI with MDI, a chemical with 2,500 times lower VOC emissions.

Ice-Nine also makes plenty of conventional PU blanks and has made a point of reducing their environmental impact too. Only wood from a sustainably managed bass forest is used for the stringers, and precision equipment pours PU into molds, minimizing the air pollution and chemical waste inherent to the traditional ‘open bucket’ pouring method.

By taking Ice-Nine cane blanks and applying a cutting-edge epoxy resin derived largely from pine, Entropy Surfboards in Santa Monica is making the most sustainably constructed foam surfboards anywhere, according to company owners Desi and Rey Banatao.

However, all foam surfboards eventually end up in landfills because an infrastructure for recycling old foam is lacking.

Recyclable Surfboards: One surfboard that is 100% recyclable is a throwback to surfing’s ancient Hawaiian roots. Jon Wegener of Hermosa Beach shapes boards made of paulownia wood finished with just linseed oil and beeswax. The paulownia comes from sustainably managed farms, predominantly in Australia. Hollowing out the longer boards gets around the weight issue. Once retired, a board can be put through a woodchipper to make garden mulch.

Wegener raves about the performance of paulownia boards and says the chief obstacle is to get surfers to give them a try.

Eco surfing accessories: But for surfers seriously hooked on foam, there are other avenues to improve the sport’s eco-profile. Manufacturers are experimenting with all-natural cloth materials, like silk or hemp, in place of fiberglass. Biodegradable surfboard wax made of beeswax, leashes fashioned from recycled urethane, and corn-based plastic leash plugs are all being marketed.

Furthermore, major wetsuit brands offer lines derived from limestone that claim to be warmer than traditional petroleum-based, neoprene versions.

Surfers worth their ocean salt profess that surfing is more than sport: it is also a deep felt connection to and respect for the sea. As such, there is plenty a surfer dude or wahine can do everyday to protect the oceans. The two biggies are transportation and diet, as both contribute to rising ocean temperatures and acidity by way of greenhouse gas production.

Transportation Choices: For every 100 miles driven, switching from a 20 mpg vehicle to one averaging 35 mpg saves more than two gallons of gasoline and 40 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. And for days when surfing conditions are poor, nearly 7-foot-long skateboards christened hamboards by their Huntington Beach designer promise a ride that mimics wave surfing while reducing unnecessary driving.

Food Choices: What one eats matters as much as driving habits. A person eating a vegetarian diet contributes about 1.5 fewer tons per year of greenhouse gases than someone eating a typical American diet, according to a 2006 study by University of Chicago geophysicists.

A veg diet also guards against overfishing which has already stripped the seas of more than 90% of large predatory fish that people dine on, like tuna and salmon, as reported in 2003 in the journal Nature. Eating organic mitigates polluting agricultural runoff into the ocean from synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides.

Get Involved: There is no shortage, either, of opportunities to join in community efforts aimed at protecting the coastline, like participation in beach cleanups. The Surfrider Foundation, which helped win a decade-long battle to “Save Trestles” by defeating a toll road through San Onofre State Beach, epitomizes environmental activism within the surfing community.

4 Responses to Catch Green Surf Wave

  1. brady says:

    may i ask where you got the picture for the surfing article and if it
    is under copyright?
    thanks a lot

  2. This is a personal photo taken when I was a teenager. For what purpose are you interested in this photo?

  3. jonathan says:

    i was surfing sano back then and kind of recognize those boards…
    i like your artical.
    your smart…
    all you guys look so great…..

  4. Patrickf says:

    Nice article!
    Is there a way to reach you, Sarah, per email?

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