On more than one occasion, I’ve heard surfers described as “canaries in the coal mine,” when it comes to general ocean health. If you’re unfamiliar with the idiom, coal miners used to bring caged canaries down in the mines with them for safety. If deadly gases were present in the mine, the canary would die before the miners, signaling them to exit the tunnels immediately.
As for the phrase’s meaning among surfers, any person who spends a considerable amount of time in the ocean will be more in tune with its changes. Especially, say, if the ocean is making them sick.
Consider for a minute the amount of plastic surfers encounter in the ocean and on the beach, the occasions when a pumping swell after a rain squall equals a cold or worse, and the oil spills over the last several decades that have closed down swaths of beaches and led to momentous shifts in US energy policy. Point being, surfers are typically the first to see how behaviors of modern society are impacting the ocean, and as a result often become the ocean’s most vocal advocates or early adopters of new sustainable technologies.
In the last decade or so, the trend toward green in surf has seeped into the industry itself – inspiring endemic brands and visionaries to develop innovative, more sustainable practices in producing boards, wetsuits, boardshorts, etc. In the surfboard industry in particular, among numerous recent innovations, Marko Foam has been instrumental in creating EPS surfboard blanks partially made up of recycled material, and Arctic Foam will soon make its algae blank commercially available.
Meanwhile, a company out of Santa Cruz is hard at work developing a surfboard blank out of an unlikely waste stream – seafood scraps.
Cruz Foam was founded by John Felts, a 31-year-old UC Santa Cruz electrical engineering Ph.D. student, and 40-year-old UCSC associate professor in electrical engineering Marco Rolandi, to create a more sustainable alternative to traditional polyurethane foams. They use a material called chitin that is present in shellfish like crab, lobster, and shrimp. Chitin is affordable, durable, and can be used to create a foam that is much less toxic than polyurethane or expanded polystyrene (EPS).
“Back in the 70s and 80s, people essentially thought chitin was going to be this super material that would solve the world’s problems, and as we know it didn’t really pan out that way,” Felts told me.
He says the reason it was largely forgotten was that early research and development showed that chitin wasn’t easy to process. Cruz Foam, however, has developed an eco-friendly, water-based solution and is hoping to bring this innovation to the surf industry.
Still, Felts and his team are still refining the process to “blow” surfboard blanks that would be desirable to shapers and match the performance characteristics of other products on the market. “We haven’t put a board in the water yet,” Felts said, “but hopefully very soon.”
Felts says foam from chitin has broad-reaching applications, but the focus on the surf industry first was a deliberate choice. “Surfers, almost by definition, are hungry for more sustainable options, and some of the inroads that other companies have made are really motivating.”
Editor’s note: To be clear, the surfboard in the image above is not made from Cruz Foam, but, again, Cruz hopes to get a functional surfboard in the water soon.