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Rob Machado and Evan Marks: “If we can do it, anyone can do it.”


The Inertia

Imagine getting ready for a surf trip in the not-too-distant future. You’re going to Cloudbreak, a coral reef in Fiji that’s still producing epic waves. Before you leave on the long flight, you buy surf credits which support non-profit organizations that aid local communities. You surround your favorite board with re-usable eco-packing to keep it safe during the journey. And that surfboard? It’s certified as made of earth-friendly materials, including mushroom foam, flax cloth and bioresin. It’s built to last, but if you break it on a heavy wave, it’s fully recyclable.

Whether Cloudbreak can be saved is still very much in question, but those ways of making surfing more sustainable are closer than you think. In fact, some of them are here already. All were topics at the Groundswell Society’s 12th Annual Surfing Arts, Science and Issues Conference, held on Saturday, February 15th. At Scripps Institute of Oceanography, more than seventy people gathered to learn why “The Future of Surfing Is Not Disposable.” Almost twenty speakers and panelists came together to share on topics including the fate of coral reefs in a high carbon dioxide future, the lifecycle of a sustainable surfboard, emerging technologies, and putting sustainability into action.

Surfers have a special bond with the ocean and a deep desire to ensure that the waves keep coming year after year. But according to Sustainable Surf co-founder Kevin Whilden, human activities are taking us down a road that may lead to the end of iconic breaks like Cloudbreak and Trestles. The reason? Climate change caused by increased CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Warming global temperatures are melting the polar ice cap which raises the sea level, and thawing permafrost releases additional CO2 which exacerbates the situation. Falk Feddersen, a Scripps professor, has modeled the impact of rising sea level on Lower Trestles; if it’s high tide all the time, the break is swamped and the classic peeling A-frames don’t form.

Reef breaks like Cloudbreak face a different threat from climate change: ocean acidification. The excess CO2 we humans produce is taken up by the seas, and causes a drop in the normally slightly alkaline pH level corals need to grow. This effect was demonstrated in a video of a scientist blowing into a beaker of seawater through a straw – introducing carbon dioxide from his breath – and a pH meter ticked downward as the water became more acidic. Coral reefs are “the rainforests of the ocean,” said Jyotika Vimani, the director of technical operations for the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE, and they are suffering from “osteoporosis of the ocean,” also known as bleaching. As a result of acidification, many coral reefs around the globe are sick, dying or dead, dissolving instead of growing. Not only are the waves that rely on the reef’s structure in danger, but the abundance of life supported by these ocean rainforests is at risk. “It’s like that set wave is about to break on your head,” said Whilden. “You’ve got to do something about it.”

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Sustainable Surf’s ECOBOARD project. See this stamp on your board? You’re doing something good.

Although the issues seem daunting, Firewire’s CEO Mark Price likes to remember the old adage about how to eat an elephant: one bite at a time. He and the other conference speakers are doing just that, finding manageable ways that affect positive change while influencing others to do the same. Firewire is reducing its carbon footprint by participating in Sustainable Surf’s ECOBOARD project through its Timbertek line, and will soon transition to using bioresin exclusively in all its surfboards. In addition, the company has absorbed the increased cost of shipping surfboards with post-consumer recycled and reusable Bast packing materials. Price hopes the company can “tip the market” so that all surfboard manufacturers will reject bubble wrap and other throwaway materials in favor of a more socially responsible solution.

The Super Sap epoxy bioresin used by Firewire, SUPERbrand, and a growing number of other companies and shapers was created by Entropy Resins. It took the company a number of tries before they developed a formulation that wasn’t an unmarketable yellow, leading co-founder Rey Banatao to agree with Kermit that “it isn’t easy being green.” But the results are worth it: life-cycle analysis show a 50% reduction in CO2 from the new white resin.

SUPERbrand’s Jason Koons doesn’t want his customers to feel like they’re compromising when they buy green. He says Super Sap is now as good as any resin on the market, and he used it to glass a surfboard at the front of the auditorium. Whilden pointed out that “we did not issue gas masks to everyone in this room because they’re not needed.” From the front row, I detected only a slight odor. “Kind of smells like Thai food,” Koons quipped.

Jason Koons, smelling the Thai food.

Jason Koons, smelling the Thai food.

Banatao played a video that showcased one of Entropy’s latest projects: recyclable composites. Immersed in non-toxic hot vinegar, hardened resin dissolved from carbon fiber cloth, allowing both to be reclaimed. Imagine a ski that could be separated into its constituent parts for reuse. Plastics had to be redesigned to allow them to be recycled, Banato explained. Now Entropy Resins is leading the way in re-engineering composites to be less disposable.

Falken shows a BIOM blank to Machado. A Timbertek rests on the wall.

Falken shows a BIOM blank to Machado. A Timbertek rests on the wall.

Resins aren’t the only surfboard component going greener. Sustainable Surf gathers EPS foam, such as the packing from TVs and other electronics, at participating surf shops and collection events. Then Marko Foam densifies it for inclusion in surfboard blanks that will contain 25% recycled content, which companies like SUPERbrand shape into new surfboards. Since 2012, the Waste to Waves program has diverted 200,000 pounds of CO2 emissions. Going even greener, Rob Falken of Tecniq showed off one of his pale green BIÓM blanks made from 99% polymerized sugarcane biomass and expanded with CO2 “borrowed” from the air. It’s lightweight, waterproof, durable, industrially compostable, and launching in a few months. Enjoy Handplane’s Ed Lewis has gone beyond shaping handplanes from broken surfboards and created one of compressed hay, but he dreams of using mushroom-based foam – which is really a thing. Although it isn’t ready for use in blanks yet, mushroom foam has been shaped into fins and used to protect NOAA buoys.

New materials may lead to new surfboards designs. Donald Brink is shaping asymmetric boards, and finless boards that are thicker on one rail and meant to be flipped over, depending on whether the surfer is riding heel-or toe-side. “My goal is to embrace change and learn to work with the new materials,” he said.

Speakers offered many suggestions on living and surfing more sustainably, aside from seeking out an environmentally-friendly surfboard when it’s time for a new stick. Sustainable Surf’s Deep Blue Life project provides guidelines for reducing your impact on the planet, such as buying organic local food, biking to the beach, recycling, and offsetting your carbon footprint. You could dream big and compete for the Wendy Schmidt OceanHealth XPRIZE, which offers purses for developing accurate and affordable pH sensors to increase understanding of ocean acidification. Give back to coastal communities by making a donation to Surf Credits. Or install a rainwater catchment system at your house, like Rob Machado did with the help of his friend Evan Marks who runs The Ecology Center: “If we can do it, anyone can do it.”

  • bkh2o

    Great event and some important topics were broached! You can still check out our exhibit that was done in collaboration with Sustainable Surf, “What’s In Your Board”, through the end of February at the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center in San Clemente, CA. http://www.surfingheritage.org

  • Chuck Allison

    The packing for shipping surfboards deserves a story……back in the mid/late 60′s when Aussie surf stuff was all the rage. The shop I worked at on the east coast got a shipment of John Arnold surfboards shaped by Wyane Lynch , to protect the boards on their trip they were packed with the first Ugg Boots that we had ever seen. No hard soles, no colors, just sheep skin booties that were ugly and warm. The whole batch sold in in like two weeks as late fall arrived on the east coast. It was a long time before anyone saw Uggs again, too soon! Bad business model?. But there was a totally practical means of protecting boards in transit……