Words by Enrique Gill
Surfers have a reputation for being at one with Mother Nature,
but beneath our feet there’s always been that dirty little secret.
The boards we ride are toxic at every level of the production
process, rendered as they are from oil-based products. Eco-friendly
surfboards are few and far between, and often just a choice of the
“lesser of evils”.
A measure of this reality is due to the complex relationship
between the men and materials that birthed the surf industry. As the
sport evolved from pastime to industry, some watermen became
household names, synonymous with the lifestyle. Men who surfed,
who understood the interplay between equipment and waves, began
building lifestyle empires. Well-known shapers became celebrities.
Some became global brands while others developed loyal local
followings. In either case, their surfboards became status symbols,
hovering between utilitarian tools and magical talismen. They spoke
not only about how you rode, but of your standing in the line-up.
In the stratified world of surfing, owning a hand-made custom
board has always counted for something.
The resulting industry (large-scale and cottage) has supported
the lifestyles of thousands of people from board moguls down
to shop clerks. Unfortunately, most of them relied on Gordon
“Grubby” Clark to make their wet dreams come true. The founder
of Clark Foam worked with partner Hobie Alter to perfect
manufacturing techniques to mass-produce polyurethane foam
blanks that were cheap and readily available. Clark Foam’s ability
to produce large quantities of blanks to meet increasing demand
changed surfing forever, helping to turn an eccentric pastime
enjoyed by a few hundred beach bums into a cultural tsunami
pursued by millions.
Gordon Clark dominated for decades in a culture that regarded
changes to surfboard construction materials and methods with
suspicion – even as a threat to their way of life. So Clark Foam’s
sudden closure last December sent shockwaves through the global
surf community, immediately interrupting the supply of new
surfboards. Industry observers estimate Clark supplied up to 80%
of the blanks used in Southern California, shipping a thousand
blanks a day to shapers throughout the region and to distribution
centers around the world.
But according to Grubby’s “exit fax”, sent to his customers
on the day he shut his Orange County factory, three former Clark
Foam employees were on full Workers’ Compensation Disability,
“evidently for life,” thanks to health issues related to the blankmanufacturing
process, and he faced a third action from the
widow of an employee who had died of cancer. In fact, inhaling
TDI (toluene di-isocyanate) particles has been proven to cause
severe and chronic lung problems and is linked to cancer. Clark
openly admitted that “our official safety record as an employer is
not very good” and that “we do emit TDI into the air.”
Mark Massara, the Sierra Club’s Director of Coastal Programs
and an avid surfer, makes no secret of his antipathy towards Clark.
Massara sees Clark’s closing as an overreaction to government
regulation. “He either received extremely bad legal advice, or he
was saying ‘fuck you’ to the industry,” Massara said.
Since then, in a world suddenly bereft of Clark Foam,
commercial shapers have been reassessing their construction
options, exploring how to survive in a competitive climate that
favors economies of scale and mass-production over craftsmanship,
while creating goods that are environmentally friendly – not merely
to improve their balance sheets and avoid legal actions, but to meet
the demands of customers concerned over the health of the planet
and the people who build their surfboards, customers willing to pay
a premium for greener goods.
Such survival tactics are proving to be prescient. For example,
during the recent increase in oil prices, post-consumer products
and eco-labels have become all the more desirable. A combination
of rising fuel costs, stricter environmental regulations, and changing
consumer expectations are spurring the demand for greener
alternatives. Slowly, very slowly, people are kicking their old habits,
replacing oil-based clothes, surfboards, and gear with products
made from renewable resources.
Patagonia, the technical goods and apparel retailer, has long
managed to mix high ideals with good products, selling highend
gear to affluent consumers. Environmental stewardship
is more than just window dressing for Patagonia founder and
chairman Yvon Chouinard. His company has benefited from being
eco-friendly, generating $240 million in sales for 2005, while
committing 1% of its pre-tax revenue to environmental causes.
Over the past two decades they’ve donated some $22million to
environmental organizations. Point Blanks, Patagonia’s surfboard
division, was born out of Chouinard’s personal frustration with
fragile polyurethane boards. He enlisted his son Fletcher with the
task of building more durable boards: the longer a surfboard lasts,
the better for the environment.
“Initially we had no idea just how toxic surfboards were,”
Fletcher commented, who, through trial and error has mastered
the technique of shaping the polystyrene blanks now at the core of
Patagonia’s boards. Although Fletcher takes no credit for the shift
in the production process, he considers polystyrene blanks to
be a step in the right direction. Commonly found in packaging
materials, polystyrene is described as engineered air. Reputed
to be lighter and stronger than polyurethane, polystyrene is
recyclable whether in a solid or foam state, factors that can cut
down on waste during the shaping process.
Mark Brown, a Santa Barbara environmental consultant and
surfer, thinks polystyrene represents a small shift in the transition
to greener surfboards. There are risks and trade-offs involved in
these technologies, he writes by email. “Composite technologies,
which are at the root of all surfboards that mix materials in
bonded layers, have a checkered history.”
If noxious foam poses a health hazard to shapers, the toxic
fumes glassers inhale are a nightmare, presenting environmental
and potentially life-threatening health dangers. Workers exposed
to fumes during the glassing process run the risk of illness
ranging from lung disease to reproductive problems.
Fortunately, scientists and academics are rethinking
chemistry from the molecules up. Brown sees a promising future
for epoxies extracted from sugar cane. According to the USDA,
more than two million tons of sugar cane is produced annually,
making it cheap, easy to obtain, and a renewable source. Lab
studies indicate that sucrose-based epoxy is capable of remaining
stable even when exposed to sunlight and saltwater, and lacks
bisphenal-A, a chemical found in petroleum-based epoxy that’s
linked to sterility in mice and humans.
Envisioning a brighter, greener future is a full-time job
for Chris Hines, Sustainability Director for the Eden Project in
Cornwall, UK and co-founder of Surfers Against Sewage. “It’s
all too easy to say, ‘We’re not there yet so I’ll stick with my
old technologies.’ Any step forward is better than where we
are now,” he writes by email. Hines has no doubt that green
boards will be entering the line-up in the not-so-distant future,
envisioning a day when retired surfboards are suitable material
for garden mulch.
As ancient Hawaiian surfboards were carved from
hardwoods, Hines took a step back to the future in imagining a
new generation of surfboards fashioned from natural materials.
Dubbed ‘eco boards’, his design team at the Eden Project has
created earth-friendly prototypes fashioned from locally-grown
balsa wood, hemp and a plant-based resin, offering a glimpse of
a greener horizon.
Hines readily admits eco boards aren’t commercially
viable just yet. Balsa blanks cost roughly $400, significantly
boosting the cost of finished boards. And until balsa
outperforms petroleum-based surfboards, there won’t be too
many converts at the pro level either. But Hines sees balsa
blanks as an incremental step towards surfboards that are both
sustainable and meet the requirements of surfers who ride at
the highest level.
“Building a better board isn’t
a matter of scarcity, but a design
challenge,” he writes. “If we can blow
popcorn, we can blow (plant-based)
surfboard blanks. This is a far simpler
step than the history of flight, which in
less than a century went from no flight
to man on the moon.”
Hines believes a new generation of eco-friendly boards
will arise from shapers comfortable with risk and uncertainty,
comparing the challenge to big-wave riding. “Riding Mavericks
was once thought impossible until Jeff Clark summoned up the
courage to do it.”
Ben Cross, 34, is one independent shaper who embraces
Hines’ message. Building the next generation of eco boards in
Gloucestershire, England, Cross sees the demise of Clark Foam
as an opportunity for his fledgling company, Sannyasi (from the
Hindu term for mendicant), to grow. He’s experimenting with
a mix of MDI (methyl di-isocyanate) and plant-based foams and
natural resins to produce greener, lighter surfboards. While
Cross hasn’t renounced the use of plastic entirely, he’s seeking
out greener alternatives wherever possible. By combining
traditional construction techniques with modern materials, he’s
hoping to change the industry from within, taking surfing back
to its roots in the shaping shed.
Will the surf industry decide to clean up its act, or will it
continue to offshore the manufacturing process, shifting the
burden of environmental damage to developing nations? Will
we soon see broad acceptance of a new kind of surfboard, one
based on more sustainable principles? One thing is certain: the
search for a cleaner ride is underway, and that, considering our
history of complacency, is good news.
Enrique Gili is a freelance writer living in Southern California. He reports
regularly to the Path on environmental developments.