[ header = California surfing]

The sport of surfing—the solitary figure surrounded by seawater, drenched in sunlight—is inextricably linked with Mother Nature. Indeed, surfers are reliant on her for the blessing of a perfect wave. And their reputation for being eco-minded has grown over the last several decades, particularly since the establishment of such organizations as the California-based Surfrider Foundation, which works to keep oceans clean and beaches intact. But while surfers may appear to be role models in the fight for a better planet, their surfboards are proving to be an environmental disaster.

Concerns about the eco-friendliness of surfboards came to a head on December 5, 2005, the day that Gordon “Grubby” Clark, founder and owner of Clark Foam in Laguna Niguel, California,  abruptly shut down his business after more than 40 years of operation. At the time, Clark’s business manufactured 90 percent of all blanks—which are the foam cores used to make modern surfboards. He faxed a seven-page swan song to his customers, alluding to pressures he faced from the EPA and the state of California, among others, over the possible environmental and health concerns linked to the materials and methods he used to create the foam cores.

Most troubling to the authorities were the toxic fumes emitted from the factory (which was located in an affluent neighborhood), as well as dust emissions and the resins used to make surfboards. “I should have seen this coming many years sooner and closed years ago in a slower, more predictable manner,” says Clark in his fax. “I waited far too long, being optimistic rather than realistic. I also failed to do my homework.”

News of the closure shocked the surfing community worldwide. Clark ordered his workers to dismantle and dispose of his board-making equipment, and grieving surfers gathered at the disposal site to pay their last respects. The abrupt closure of Clark’s business (the date is now known to insiders as “Blank Monday”) sparked a panic that sent surfboard prices soaring. A wave of surfboard thefts started soon after, and the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office suspected it was a result of the publicity surrounding the blank shortage. Now that the biggest supplier had vanished overnight, where would the foam come from? And if the old foam was hazardous, how could manufacturers develop a greener board surfers would want to ride?

Most surfboards today are made from a polyurethane foam blank that’s covered in fiberglass cloth and strengthened and coated with a polyester resin. None of those materials is eco-friendly, and Clark actually admitted the chemicals his company used emitted more than 4,000 pounds of styrene fumes per year. (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says exposure to styrene can affect the central nervous system, causing headaches, fatigue, dizziness, and confusion.)

But the biggest environmental culprit may be the blanks themselves. They’re not biodegradable, for starters, and the foam usually contains a chemical called toluene diisocyanate (TDI)—a possible carcinogen that the EPA also says has detrimental effects on the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and central nervous systems. And making the foams releases carbon dioxide and VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, into the atmosphere.

Because of these dangers, some surfers and environmental innovators are experimenting with new materials and methods that will make boards as environmentally friendly as the surfer’s image. But a new wave of change is coming from the southernmost county in England—thousands of miles and an entire ocean away from Clark Foam and California’s sunny shores.

NEXT: British invasion >

 [ header = British invasion]

British Invasion

Though Cornwall, England, may seem like an unlikely surfer haven, the local scene is booming there. According to London’s The Daily Telegraph, surfing in Cornwall brings in almost $83 million to the community annually. The Eden Project, an environmental education and research complex and tourist attraction, has its hand in many of Cornwall’s eco businesses, including organic farms, resorts, and, yes, surfing companies.

The green community in Cornwall is in no small part the result of a recent environmental crisis that surfers took the lead in resolving. In 1990, there were 400 million gallons of raw sewage being dumped into England’s coastal waters every day, creating potential health risks for anyone who took to the waves.

Surfer and Cornwall native Chris Hines got fed up and founded Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), a grassroots group that lobbied the House of Commons while wearing gas masks and wetsuits and carrying surfboards.  The tactic worked. “Because surfing is sexy, we got a disproportionate amount of media coverage,” says Hines. As a result, Cornwall’s contaminated beaches were catapulted to the top of the political agenda. In 1997, Hines was named a special advisor to England’s minister for the environment to help acquire and spend nearly $10 billion to clean up the coastline.

A decade later, you’d never know Cornwall’s beaches were ever anything other than pristine. SAS is still active, and Hines, not one to rest on his laurels, is now the sustainability director at the Eden Project. He’s also collaborating with a handful of local businesses to build a better, more eco-friendly surfboard.

Lightweight foam blanks weren’t always the industry standard. Surfing was likely born in Hawaii around 1,000 A.D., and the first boards were made of wood from fallen koa and breadfruit trees. Surfing migrated to the U.S. by the early 20th century, and most boards were made from redwood trees and weighed up to 65 pounds. By the ’30s, a hollow board was being produced commercially in Los Angeles. After World War II, balsa wood became the favored board-building material, bringing down the weight of boards by half.

In walked Grubby Clark. In 1958, he and his business partner at the time, Hobie Alter, pioneered the formula for their petroleum-based foam that became the industry standard for nearly half a century. Surfers loved the foam-core boards because they struck the right balance of lightness, strength, flexibility, and maneuverability. The foam was also waterproof, cheap, and readily available. So any eco-heir apparent to polyurethane would have to be at least as good, if not better, in all those categories to satisfy the surfing community.

Back in Cornwall, Hines had an old-school flashback: Why not use wood again to make surfboards? In 2004, the wood from a balsa tree that was cut down on the grounds of the Eden Project was used to create some prototypes, but ultimately, they proved to be too heavy to perform well and too expensive to manufacture. So he tried a different tack. Earlier this year, he promoted the efforts of local foam company Homeblown Blanks, which had been developing a new plant-based material since late 2005.

The product, Biofoam, is 45-percent plant-based and is used to make blanks that create one third fewer emissions and use 61 percent less non-renewable energy than polyurethane when manufactured.Chuck Menzel, founder of GreenSurf.org, a non-profit that promotes environmentally responsible surf products, was another surfer involved in Biofoam’s creation. “We set out to find a foam that rides as well as or better than polyurethane, and I think we really nailed it,” he says.

And with the new blank, the Cornwall collaborators formed the completed product, the Ecoboard—a surfboard made with a Biofoam blank covered in a 98-percent natural resin. At press time, the making of the first 20 Ecoboards was underway, but Hines says the project ultimately is not meant to be a full commercial operation. “This is a challenge to the surfing industry—we’ll make a few, but we’re not here to make boards,” says Hines. “We’re here to push the technology, so the industry can say, ‘Okay, we’ll make boards this way.’”

And while the Ecoboard is a good start, it has some kinks to work out. The materials aren’t 100 percent natural, and the board’s performance is still in question because it’s so new. But there’s no doubt it’s a vast improvement on modern board-making, and it only stands to get better. “We don’t know yet how everything performs over time,” says Menzel. “Within a year or so we’ll know how the materials react, and we can make improvements.” Still, the new board may still be snubbed by the surf community, since Biofoam’s green-tan base color may be unappealing when compared to the stark white they’re accustomed to.

NEXT: Ripple effect >

 [ header = Ripple effect]

The Ripple Effect

Hines and his cohorts aren’t the only ones on the quest for a better board.  Danny Hess, of Hess Surfboards, has been using wood, expanded polystyrene (EPS), which is recyclable, and an epoxy resin that releases 80 percent fewer VOCs into the air than the standard polyester resin, to make boards for six years. EPS is the most widely used alternative to polyurethane foam, and it is similar to the Styrofoam used to make beach coolers. The boards are as light and even stronger than traditional ones, but some surfers have complained that EPS boards aren’t as responsive to their movements. Hess’s boards are encased in sustainably-harvested or reclaimed wood.

“The combination of the materials I use produce the strongest, most functional and environmentally-conscious surfboard I can build right now,” says Hess. While it is an improvement on conventional board-making methods, it’s petroleum-based, so it won’t become a long-term solution. “Chemicals are still involved, and I’m always searching for better alternatives that release fewer toxins into the atmosphere,” Hess says. “What I really want to see is a bio-based, EPS-quality foam.”

Surfers are notoriously finicky about board performance, but the closure of Clark Foam forced them to embrace change—not just of new board materials, but also greener options in clothing and gear. Whether the motivation comes from necessity, guilt, or a desire to innovate, some say that the industry’s adoption of green practices and eco-friendly products is more of a business decision than one of conscience. “There is this social-economic trend around everything eco, so there is a demand for companies to go green,” said Erik Joule, the senior vice president of North American merchandising and design for Quiksilver, a surfing apparel and gear manufacturer.

Not one to miss a beat, Quiksilver has incorporated organic cotton into all their T-shirts and woven clothing, and also designed some 100 percent organic T-shirts and recycled board shorts.  Regardless of the industry’s motivation, the push for a greener sport will force surfers to practice the eco-conscious values they may have been preaching to others.

And the impact of developing more eco-friendly materials could expand well beyond the world of surfing. “There is definitely a market among many industries to develop a greener foam,” says Jay Bolus, vice president of technical operations for MBDC, a sustainable product and process design company. “The quantum leap we’re all looking for is a new class of materials that will be 100 percent bio-based or easily recyclable.” 

Story by Lisa Stasiulewicz. This article originally appeared in Plenty in September 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007