First person point of view photo of a surfer floating in the ocean while catching the waves on his surfboard

Surfboard Sustainability Part I: A Quick Look at Surfboard Sustainability and Environmentalism in 2021

by kirkcoburn
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Surfing continues being one of the greatest of all sports that places one right in the middle of nature and… well, a few monstrous waves. With that comes more awareness of surfboard sustainability, especially with eco-conscious surfers.

Many surfers take this more seriously nowadays and look for surfboards with eco-materials. Surfboard brands with eco-manufacturing do exist. At the same time, a lot of interesting science exists in how their products became a reality.

Are you thinking about what your surfboard (and other popular products) did to the environment as you surfed this summer? Let’s do a deep-dive into how surfboard sustainability started, where it’s going, and the products currently being produced.

How Far Back Does Surfboard Sustainability Go?

According to sources like Surfline, the term “sustainable surfboards” was around decades ago. But it never really became a reality until recent years. When surfing became a more popular American pastime during the late 1950s, surfboard manufacturing used some of the worst materials on the planet for the environment.

After all, the old three-layer process of making surfboards used toxic materials:

  1. Foam core
  2. Fiberglass cloth
  3. Resin

All of these are hard to manage, toxic for the environment, as well as human health. Polyurethane foam is still being used, though, because it’s very light and easily shaped. In fact, polyurethane has been a standard for old-school surfers for well over 60 years. Polyurethane is a synthetic resin where all polymer units link by “urethane groups,” then form the constituents of paints, varnishes, adhesives, and foams. You most commonly see polyurethane used in furniture products, bedding, and carpet underlays due to its flexibility.

Unfortunately, nobody back in the classic days of surfing knew that polyurethane was very difficult to manage when it past its useful life.

Alternatives exist to polyurethane foam nowadays that are gradually becoming more mainstream. Most of those are also better for the environment, if sometimes creating more work in the creation of the boards.

It’s worth looking at each of these alternate materials in detail, including how they feature in some popular surfboard brands.

Polystyrene Is Becoming a New Alternative to Polyurethane

You might know about polystyrene as a good alternative to standard polyurethane foam. Polystyrene is a transparent thermoplastic you often see in packing. One awesome thing about polystyrene is it’s still very lightweight, making it fairly workable to shape when bought in blocks. Nevertheless, it does take more time to shape this type of foam. It requires hot wire techniques to cut the foam smoothly.

The use of polystyrene became more popular when the old Clark Foam company folded 15 years ago. A lot of you may remember when Clark Foam dominated the market (for decades) in surfboard blanks. Because they used polyurethane foam, they shut down due to new government regulations on the materials used.

When they closed, the new push toward surfboard sustainability really began in earnest. It’s when polystyrene became one of the best new alternatives. The good news here is if you find polystyrene too tough to shape, some variations on the material are available that are even more environmentally friendly.

Two to look into include:

Expanded Polystyrene

Otherwise known as EPS, expanded polystyrene is becoming even more popular than polystyrene itself because of how sustainable it is. You’ll be able to recognize its appearance based on tiny foam balls (or beads) on the surface. Most of the time, you’ll see it used as insulation, or in its most famous form: Styrofoam™.

The only downside to using it is it’s impossible to shape by hand. A machine usually has to do the molding for you, but many surfboard manufacturers are doing exactly that. Also, only epoxy resin works on this type of material without being incompatible.

Extruded Polystyrene Foam

This is usually abbreviated as XTR or XPS, and it’s extremely absorbent. Plus, it has a fantastic flex memory, including high resistance. Its only drawback is it’s expensive to produce, so it’s not in common use. Some of the most common places extruded polystyrene foam gets used is in architectural modeling and in Styrofoam™, as mentioned above.

Still, if you ever tried XTR, you’d know how responsive it is on ocean waves (even aside from it being another dependable green material).

These are obviously not the only sustainable materials being used now for surfboards. Others continue making just as much of an impact — including the use of natural materials from hemp to mushrooms!

Other Types of Surfboard Foam Being Used for Surfboard Sustainability

A man at sunrise looking out at the ocean with his surfboard under his arm.

Did you know that mushroom and algae foams are making inroads with the surfing community in recent years? A good example of this is Myco Foam, something entirely mushroom based and produced by a New York bio-materials company called Evocative.

They do this through a trademarked material: MycoFlex™. Made of 100% mycelium, this material from mushrooms allows for something very durable. Myco Foam is in numerous products, including surfboards.

While the jury is still out on how well this material holds up over time, it is a cool way to focus on being sustainable. Making it more “earthy” is the strength of the material; it comes from Chitin found in crab exoskeletons. Numerous surfboard blanks are part of Evocative’s recent inventory.

A few other sustainable foams currently trendy in the surfboard sustainability movement include:

Envirofoam

As a variation on Expanded Polystyrene, Envirofoam is a new type of EPS using all recycled materials. A company in California called Marko Foam produces it.

What they do is take EPS blanks and recycle them (along with recycling numerous other foams) to form their own product. Various top companies use Envirofoam at the moment, including Channel Islands, one of the leading surfboard makers.

As Marko Foam notes, their Envirofoam is not only recyclable but also durable and safer to shape. It also performs better than many similar materials.

Foam Made of Hemp (and Algae)

Yes, those who know how important hemp is for things lately should know it’s also become a sustainable material for creating surfboards. Most know hemp as the fiber of cannabis plants, extracted from the stem and most often used to make rope, fabrics, fiberboard, paper, and now surfboards. Infinity SUP (a brand that you will find all over my garage) currently uses hemp, bamboo, and recycled wood to create their surfboard products.

Algae is another natural material being used in the well-known Arctic Foam. After years of creating polyurethane foams for surfboards, they decided to go green and create a new foam using algae oil. Biologists and chemists from UC San Diego’s California Center for Algae Biotechnology worked carefully with the company to create this new type of expandable foam.

What might open the eyes of many surfers is that algae is now one of the top organisms used today to create numerous products, including alternative fuels.

It’s more than just sustainable foams going the green route in the last decade. Now you can find resins and fiberglass with similar options.

Let’s take a look at some of those right now to see how they provide better safety for you and our planet.

What Are Some Alternatives to Fiberglass?

Fiberglass cloth was the second layer of surfboards for decades, and now many companies are limiting its use. An excellent alternative to it right now once again comes from… you guessed it, hemp!

Hemp cloth skins are suddenly a big thing thanks to being completely biodegradable. More officially called “woven hemp cloth,” it resembles real fiberglass in many ways.

Many argue real fiberglass is the least environmentally dangerous material from original surfboard designs; the damage it does hardly compares to that from traditional foam. As such, some continue to mix fiberglass with materials like hemp cloth and other natural materials. The exception is bamboo cloth.

Unfortunately, bamboo has less strength when compared to fiberglass.

What About Environmentally-Friendly Resins?

Plenty of new sustainable resins hit the market in the last few years. Some manufacturers removed the dangerous carbon from their resins and replaced it with carbon derived from plants.

An excellent example of this is a resin that a California company called Entropy is producing. Their particular epoxy resin uses about 30% resin from plants, ultimately reducing carbon emissions by half. They also use waste byproducts like paper and biofuels.

Incidentally, they call it Super Sap, one of the best marketing names for any epoxy resin available.

Polyester resins are pretty much on their way out now. Why? Because bio-resins currently provide just as much strength and durability as polyester used to. One thing about the new forms of epoxy, however, is they never shatter, making them even more popular.

Removing polyester became a necessity since their VOC emissions were far too dangerous. And yet, manufacturers still consider polyester to be a strong synthetic fiber, and they continually use it to create plastics.

Going forward, the bio-resin trend will likely become the new norm (if still being a bit limited in the companies providing them). NOTOX from France is another good source in providing bio-resin boards.

Other Natural Materials Being Used to Create Surfboard Sustainability

Many natural kinds of wood are in the sustainable surfboard mix recently, particularly bamboo (as mentioned above) as a growing overlay trend. Board makers also use balsa wood (from the famous balsa tree) for the same purpose. This wood is lightweight and can form models and rafts.

Using these as thin planks on surfboards gradually became a more common practice. Popular shapers like Santa Barbara’s own Timberland Surfboards took it on as new manufacturing philosophy. They use Paulownia wood planks, a light, fine-grained, and warp-resistant wood. It comes from China and eastern Asia.

Keep in mind that using these alternative woods sometimes makes the boards a little heavier, if just as durable as the boards you perhaps grew up using. Best of all, they look beautiful, something we all want while showing off our boards to fellow surfers along the beach.

Visit my site to learn more about how surfboard sustainability is now a leading development in the sport.

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