This world is not black and white, it is a polychrome of shades – or a spectrum, kaleidoscope, rainbow, whatever your imagination prefers. Considering the strange and interesting truth of our reality, things are often not what they seem, contradictions are present, and there are all kinds of mysteries and obstacles for us to navigate along humanity’s adventure on earth. For the surfing community, one of these contradictions and mysteries is that of sustainable surfing – a sport that literally brings people back into the sea and inspires the masses, yet is largely driven by consumerism and materials that reap negative consequences on the very place it needs to exist. As the word sustainability has blown up and is one of the biggest buzzwords to leave our mouths, it has righteously found its way into the surfing industry over the last few years, and leaves us with many questions of where we’re at today.
The early surfing days carried a light footprint as surfboards were engineered out of native trees, long before the days of airplanes and automobiles. Centuries later, the surfing industry has become dependent on non renewable resources that are increasingly controversial as our collective environmental crisis worsens. Modern surfboards are made out of polyurethane and polystyrene, plastic materials made out of fossil fuels, which are toxic to extract as well as process, and never biodegrade. However, this development has helped the sport of surfing evolve and has made it more accessible – in the Pacific Rim alone, thousands of people are able to get in sync with the sea through a borrowed board. But as resources diminish, and surf breaks become threatened by rising sea levels, the multi billion dollar surfing industry is being challenged on its environmental ethics.
Many surfers carry a love for the planet and protecting it, which has led to developments that carry the intention of helping to return the sport of surfing to its roots. One of these includes Sustainable Surf’s ECOBOARD project which is focuses on “reducing carbon footprints, increasing the use (and reuse) of renewable, recycled and upcycled inputs, and reducing toxicity within the surfboard manufacturing process.” Boards often include plant based biodegradable resins, plant based content or wood constituting at least 50% of the board. Boards that manage to successfully achieve the above criteria become certified as an ECOBOARD, helping guide consumers through their choices. Through the use of ecologically conscious materials, ECOBOARD’s educate people on humanity’s impact on the ocean, and how we can mitigate the harm done by what we choose to buy.
So the ironies within surfing are well on their way to be solved, right? Surfrider caught up with Stefan Aftanas from Aftanas Surfboards in Tofino to get his perspective on sustainable surfing, and if the latest innovations are the ultimate answer. He gave a forewarning that we may not like what he has to say on the subject, and within moments, he disclosed that his boards are not ECOBOARD’s, and that he feels they are not the cure to surfing’s environmental dilemma. He first gained insight when using biodegradable content for boards, “sugarcane based foam – which would decay at astounding rates, I made 10 boards with it…then couldn’t sell, couldn’t fix, could only throw out.” He also wonders if today’s ECOBOARDS are as durable, as they are made out of materials that have not yet suffered the test of time. They could have a usable life half that of a surfboard made traditionally. “There are more than a few 20 year old boards out there going strong. My opinion – keep it usable.”
Aftanas approaches sustainable surfing by using traditional materials and attention to detail during the manufacture process to create long lived and loved surf craft. Stefan stated Aftanas is all about “creating a product that has longevity. If I make a longboard, I expect that longboard to last for 25 years”, and if that board breaks, he can fix it and ensure it lives on. In making boards, Stefan pays close attention to the process, “when we build boards, I make sure we are building boards with the best and safest materials, like UV curing resins”. UV resins (resins that cure in the presence of ultraviolet) shorten cure times from hours to minutes, severely reducing Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s), and shorten the time it takes for a surfboard to reach full strength. The result-fewer chemicals, less off gassing and a stronger surfboard. The traditional chemical used in curing polyester resins is MEKP or Methyl Ethyl Ketone Peroxide. The curing process, using peroxides, can take up to a month and requires energy (in the form of heat) to encourage the curing process. During the entirety of this time VOC’s are being emitted. Many VOC’s are air pollutants, and when combined with nitrogen oxides (which are released from sources such as motor vehicles) they react to form ground level ozone, which is a major contributor to wave destroying climate change.
Stefan grew up with parents who were into recycling and grandparents that would reuse cans until they would degrade and be able to crumble back to the earth. Everything at his store gets recycled, and the store itself has been built with an impressive amount of reused material. He is passionate about reducing, reusing and recycling waste. He joked, “if someone asked me how I sleep at night, I’d say it was because the thousands of boards I’ve kept out of landfill.” Aftanas never tosses out boards, they even take broken soft tops and refurbish them to new. Once a board is past the point of no return, they sell them as signage, a great way to share the surf aesthetic, and prevent any boards from polluting the environment.
Surfrider Foundation loves progressive recycling practices, the Pacific Rim Chapter facilitates the recycling of cigarette butts into plastic lumber, wetsuits into yoga mats, along with other items like pens and markers through the Ocean Friendly Business Campaign. One initiative that may work for everyone is California based Waste to Waves, which uses “recycled styrofoam and bio based, zero VOC resins”, eliminating the need to produce more styrofoam and harmful resins. According to surfboard shaper, Glenn Pang, the recycled boards ride just as well as fresh EPS boards. They have a collection site where they accept any styrofoam used in packaging, and then condense the foam into solid blocks for shaping. Stefan wasn’t familiar with this, but he felt it sounded promising. As he pointed out, a lot of the impact comes down to our own individual consumption and behaviours, both within and outside of surfing. Our solutions involves a combination of tactics both new and ancient, like progressive recycling for items that have become part of our everyday lives, going back to using and reusing everything we own, abiding by the zero waste ethic, and simply saying no to consuming at all. Often, it’s easy to believe that our answers are “out there”, waiting to be solved with a technological fix or conference agreement. At the end of the day…and surf, it comes down to each one of us and how we choose to tread on the planet and shred on the waves!