17 February 2014

The Future of Surfing is Not Disposable

This post was published in The Inertia on 17 February 2014.

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, and some are here now.  All were topics at the Groundswell Society’s 12th Annual Surfing Arts, Science and Issues Conference. At Scripps Institute of Oceanography last Saturday, 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.
Sustainability in Action panel: Jim Moriarty (Surfrider), Jess Ponting (Center for Surf Research), Mark Price (Firewire), Kim Matsoukas (Vans), Nellie Cohen (Patagonia). Bast eco-packaging is on the floor by the podium.
Surfers have a special bond with the ocean and a deep desire to ensure that the waves keep coming year after year. But as Sustainable Surf co-founder Kevin Whilden explained, 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, exacerbating 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. The abundance of life supported by these ocean rainforests is at risk, in addition to the waves that rely on the structure of the reef to form. "It’s like that set wave is about to break on your head - you've got to do something about it," Whilden said.

Although the issues seem daunting, Firewire's CEO Mark Price likes to remember the 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 they can effect positive change and influence 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 shows a 50% reduction in CO2 from the new white resin. 
Jason Koons glasses a SUPERbrand Fling using bioresin
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.

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.
Rey Banatao talks about Super Sap bioresin
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.
Rob Machado and Evan Marks discuss the covered trash cans he installed at Seaside Reef 
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 Ocean Health 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." 

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