Though it seems idyllic to experience the Earth’s raw energy by riding one of nature’s most beautiful moving tapestries — a wave — surfing is actually a highly toxic endeavor.

For the last half-century or so, surfboards have overwhelmingly been shaped and designed using highly toxic and non-recyclable materials, including:

  • Polyurethane foam
  • Polystyrene resin
  • Fiberglass cloth
  • Acrylic paint
Throw in a wetsuit, which contains potentially toxic neoprene, and other accessories like leashes, wax and wax comb, all of which are derived from petroleum, and what you’ve brought with you for a day at the beach are materials that will take centuries to biodegrade.

It’s a scene that stands in stark contrast to the way the Polynesians and other sea-faring societies built recreational and nomadic watercrafts sustainably for millennia.

But now, we may be seeing more of a swing back to eco-friendly practices in the surfing industry as manufacturers begin to experiment with materials that are recycled, biodegradable and not derived from petroleum.

Although the Surf Industry Manufacturer’s Association (SIMA) does not have official stats on the number of eco-friendly surf products sold, it’s a proverbial drop in the bucket compared to the more than $7 billion in annual sales the surf industry takes in, according to SIMA.

However, SIMA’s communications director, Mandy Lausché, says, “Eco-friendly products are huge in product development for the surf industry right now.”

Eco surfboards

Ever since the 2005 closure of Orange County, Calif.-based Clark Foam, which supplied roughly 90 percent of the surfing world’s foam used in shaping blanks, the door has opened to shapers, both backyard locals and world-famous masters, to create more environmentally-friendly surfboards.

Al Merrick, perhaps the most well-known shaper on the planet, collaborated with pro surfer Rob Machado on a board called The Motorboat, sold through Merrick’s Channel Islands label. Constructed with either recycled Greenfoam or recycled epoxy, the Motorboat also uses UV-cured resins, which contain no potentially chemically explosive catalysts.

One more environmentally friendly feature of The Motorboat is the fins, which are made from recycled fins. Traditionally made fins are derived from composite plastic.

Emery Hickenbotham works on the floor at Channel Island’s flagship store in Santa Barbara, Calif. He says the starting price for The Motorboat, which is a shortboard model, is $730.

Hickenbotham acknowledges that in a challenging economy, there’s not a high demand for The Motorboat, which costs several hundred dollars more than a secondhand board and roughly the same cost as a brand new custom-shaped longboard.

“It [The Motorboat] rides really well, which is important because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how environmentally friendly a board is if it doesn’t perform well,” says Hickenbotham, who adds that at least a few of the Motorboat models have been sold while he’s been on duty at the surf shop.

Wood making a comeback; other eco-friendly materials

Early 20th century to mid-century boards were mostly made out of wood in various forms, with the most popular being balsa, which is experiencing a revival because of its more environmentally friendly nature. Balsa wood boards are considered easier to handle, lighter and more buoyant by its advocates, not to mention very aesthetically pleasing.

Bamboo boards and fins are also making a blip on the surf industry radar.

Treehugger.com reports that bamboo boards are 15 percent lighter than normal polyurethane boards, with more control and speed in turns and they offer more dent resistance.

A surfboard made of bamboo, says Treehugger, has two-thirds less toxic chemicals and, ounce for ounce, is twice as strong as fiberglass and six times stronger than steel.

Some of the folks offering wood or plant-based surfing products include:

  • Gary Linden, a master shaper in Oceanside, Calif., makes boards from balsa and agave wood.
  • Brandon Moyles has a new website devoted to environmentally friendly surf products and he sells Avila boards, which are comprised of hemp rails instead of carbon fibers.
  • Grain Surfboards, located in York, Maine, uses locally harvested, sustainable-yield wood products.
Geoprene wetsuits

San Diego-based Matuse in 2006 introduced a limestone-based geoprene, which supplies to the surf market a wetsuit that is more environmentally friendly than petroleum-based neoprene.

John Campbell, Matuse’s founder, says that eco-wetsuits are currently in the second generation.

“There were a number of attempts by material providers or manufacturers to produce rubber derived from corn starch,” says Campbell, who says that corn starch just didn’t last long or keep surfers warm in the water.

Surf accessories gone green

Soy-based wax, used for traction on a surfboard is offered at surf shops. Some surfers allege that earlier versions of soy wax lacked the stickiness of traditional, petroleum-based wax. But like the wetsuit, version 2.0 of soy wax has received better feedback.

Ultimately, whether it’s boards, wetsuits, waxes or leashes, most surfers will only buy an eco-friendly product if it performs well and is around the same price as the more toxic products.

Similar to hybrid and electric car sales, eco-surf product sales will likely increase every year. But, at least for the foreseeable future, demand will be minimal compared to the mainstream toxic products until prices come way down.

MNN homepage photo: sunova_surfboards/Flickr