Within the present-day realm of materials science, there are countless examples of low-impact alternatives that are currently vying to oust traditional materials. In a surfing context, it's about ousting materials that have been the mainstay since the late 1950s when polyurethane (PU) foam and polyester resin first made a seismic introduction to the surfing scene. In 1958, California-based watercraft makers, Hobie, were so impressed with the new materials they proclaimed, “we’re not making balsa boards anymore, it’s foam or nothing.”
While today's market is still dominated with surfboards made with inner cores of PU or expanded polystyrene foam (EPS), and polyester or epoxy resins for the outer layer, there's a growing feeling that the tide is turning (pun intended) and the historical timeline of surfboard design has a new chapter emerging. Driven by principles of circular design and a deep-rooted desire to wean off fossil fuel-based nasties, the rise of next generation or 'next-gen' materials is happening, and the pressure is on brands to adapt. One could say that these materials are essentially traditional, tried-and-tested resources from 'back in the day' or pre-industrial revolution, and to stick with the trending terminology- we're going full circle. There's even an online Circular Materials Library where you can submit your own material.
Look closely and you'll see efforts are being made to turbo-charge this revolution (or reverse-evolution). Wooden surfboards made from local timber, boards utilizing permaculture rainforests, traction pads made from problematic algae bloom, surf wax made from locally grown ingredients on a farm, and wetsuits made with natural rubber. These are just a handful of exciting projects proving that nature knows best.
Next-gen materials, also known as advanced or sustainable materials, have the potential to replace toxic, plastic, and harmful materials, with many developments already underway and gaining momentum. These materials are designed to be more environmentally friendly, safer for the planet and for humans. Here are some categories of next-gen materials that could replace harmful materials:
Biodegradable: Materials that can decompose naturally and often break down relatively quickly. These materials can replace plastic, which takes hundreds of years to decompose and is harmful to wildlife and overall ecosystems.
Plant-based: Materials that can be used to replace plastics that are made from fossil fuels. For example, bioplastics made from corn starch or sugarcane can be used to replace traditional plastics. These materials are renewable and biodegradable, and some even home-compostable - which is a good sign it's safe, but means it typically has a shelf life, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Recyclable: Next-gen materials can be designed to be much more easily recycled. This can reduce the amount of waste that goes into landfills and can reduce the need for new raw materials. For example, recycled steel can be used to replace virgin steel, which requires more energy and resources to produce.
Non-toxic: Next-gen materials can be designed to be non-toxic, which can reduce the harm to human health and the environment. For example, non-toxic paints can be used to replace traditional paints, which can emit harmful chemicals.
Next-gen materials have the potential to replace harmful materials in many applications. However, it's important to ensure (with thorough R&D and testing) that these materials are truly sustainable, cost-effective, and can be produced at scale before they can be widely adopted. Better materials are collectively one lever that can be pulled to reduce our environmental impacts, the other is consumer behaviours. This lever is much more difficult to activate, as this requires a sobering reflection on our personal and collective consumption habits which - if we're honest - needs to be scaled back drastically, as we simply cannot continue to spend, consume and dispose at this current rate.
What does the future hold? The sky's the limit. There are shoes being grown by bacteria, so why can't we have a surfboard core/blank that's grown rather than chemically blown? ("Grown not blown" - someone should trademark that). Mycelium is often touted as a replacement to PU and EPS, but there are question marks around its weight and water absorption, which is obviously critical for a water-based activity such as surfing.
There's a hidden gem of a substance called Shrilk, which is a composite material made from a combination of silk fibers and a biodegradable polymer called chitosan, which is derived from chitin, a substance found in the exoskeletons of crustaceans and insects. Shrilk is being developed as a sustainable alternative to petroleum-based plastics, and is biodegradable (rapidly in compost, while releasing nutrients back into the environment), it's strong, lightweight, and flexible. It's also water-resistant, which means it could be considered for surfing equipment of the future.
Incredibly, there's now an alternative to PU/EPS foam which is made from seaweed that was hand-picked off the local beaches in Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands in the UK. There are developments in Mexico where juice from the cactus plant is being made into a bio-plastic which takes just one month to break down in soil and is safe enough to eat.
With the right balance of curiosity, creativity and patience, anything is possible. Some of the most exciting developments have come from experiments in kitchens, garages and garden sheds. Big brands would be wise to take a calculated risk on adopting the next big thing, and consequently mirror the late 1950s by writing a new disruptive force for good into the timeline of surfboard design.