Original article published 10 June, 2022
[10 minute read]
Not long ago, the idea of replacing plastics with plant-based alternatives seemed crazy and almost science-fiction-like. Yet here we are, it's the year 2022 and there are shoes grafted from lab-grown microbes, coffins made from mushrooms, clothing crafted from algae/seaweed, and even an alternative to leather made from pineapples. That's just scratching the surface, by the way. All of these alternatives to plastic are truly renewable, meaning they can be grown relatively fast - and perhaps more importantly - will not cause the toxic emissions associated with plastics that harm ecosystems and the flora and fauna that we co-exist with.
Could surfboards join the list of products functioning on a plant-based diet of components, and claim to be truly eco-friendly? It's by no means impossible, and there's some designers, shapers, scientists and manufacturers who are close to achieving this. Existing timber surfboard shapers will be quick to point out that they're already doing this, and rightly so. However, the typical performance and weight - along with cost - means that something needs to shift if modern-day popular surfboards (particularly performance surfboards) are to be ousted by substitutes that match surfers' required criteria. In this article, we address barriers standing in the way of mainstream adoption, and also highlight the latest advancements in this area, to provide optimism for the surfing industry if we seek to genuinely flex our eco-credentials.
Probably the biggest barrier to mainstream adoption of eco-alternatives is the reliance on existing infrastructure that's already efficiently functioning and profitable. The current map of global surfboard production, according to Nick Carroll's fascinating article published by Surfline in 2020, states that of the 5,690,634 surfboards that were imported into the US between 2014 and 2018, there was 5,010,296 (88%) from South East Asia. Fewer numbers came from Australia (46,738) and Mexico (312,383) but the vast majority of those SE Asian surfboards came from mega-factories in Thailand, Taiwan and mainland China. It's likely that a similar ratio of imports arrive in Australia too, given the close proximity of SE Asia. Given these numbers, it's a clear indicator that cost is a key factor behind the decision to operate manufacturing overseas, which comes as no surprise. If there's already a machine pumping out surfboards that enable a healthy mark-up, then the notion of building new factories that permit next-generation materials and a whole new set of tooling, heating, shaping, cooling and packaging, then it would take deep pockets to start this process again from scratch.
New innovations, such as plant-derived materials and low-energy production methods, will enact a seismic disruption to the status quo and the historical timeline of surfboard construction. Prior to the late 1950s, most surfboards were the ultimate beacon of sustainability because timber was the dominant base structure, typically made from locally-sourced resources and very likely to last a long time. It's easy to quip that "there hasn't been any change in ages" or "now's the time for change." Talk is cheap and, in the case of environmental damage limitation, time is finite. Answers come in the shape of research, design and prototyping, and then putting solutions under the noses of influential financial and/or political enablers. Get a pro-surfer to ride a plant-based surfboard, then watch the masses follow. Build it and they will come, said a confused Kevin Costner back in 1989.
It's worth noting at this point, almost all first-world consumables follow this blueprint of overseas production, so this isn't a witch hunt aimed at surfboard manufacturers. What this article (and the underlying message it contains) aims to achieve, is to propel the surfing industry forward and be global pioneers that other industries can follow. Surfers are, after all, self-confessed custodians of the ocean, so it would make sense for us to lead the way and be on the right side of history.
Solutions - Part I - From the surfing world
Many have tried and failed (or come close) in the elusive quest to create a truly sustainable material object that would get a frail yet deserving high-five from Sir David Attenborough. Some of the examples shown below, from the surfing world, are doing a fine job of coming very close. Not only are these creative minds coming up with innovative ideas, they're unknowingly putting indirect pressure on other manufacturers to follow their lead.
The following timber options (including many shapers that we've crossed paths with) hark back to days gone by, with the added inclusion of technology and an eye for modern design. Over in Italy, newcomers ERTHA Surfboards have a variety of timber-based boards and they even offer a DIY flat-pack system to assemble at home. Meanwhile in Costa Rica, Marcelina Piña from Piña Surfboards makes beautiful hollow wooden surfboards from local resources. David Weber from Brazil is an industry-respected shaper who often references ship-building techniques in his boards and workshops. Here in Australia, we have permaculture-driven pioneers Varuna Surf with their dazzling range of boards to suit all conditions. The award-winning Sine Surf who use cutting-edge CNC technology to produce their low-impact, paulownia boards. South of Sydney near Cronulla, Riley Balsa Wood Surfboards have the full service on offer; balsa surfboards, DIY workshops, DVDs and eBooks.
Beyond the world of timber, how about a surfboard made from problematic seaweed by Charlie Cadin in Jersey (UK) and his second iteration (in collaboration with Hervé Surfboards) consists of a seaweed-based foam for the central core of a surfboard. Experienced Brazilian shaper, Mario Ferminio, has made the world's first 100% vegetable-based resin for coating surfboards. Perhaps Charlie and Mario can team-up for a seaweed + vegetable hybrid, would be one way to get the groms interested in their veggies. Paradoxal Surfboards, from the current Mecca of surf innovation in France, have developed an impressive algae-based, 3D printed surfboard that even uses biomimicry to copy the nanometric structure of algae, as seen under a microscope.
Would you like a surfboard grown from mushrooms? Yes please. Except this has already been done back in 2013 by Evocative, a New York-based packaging business that toyed with the idea of making a mycelium blank. Mycelium is the fibrous root system of the mushroom plant and is already being used for packaging, construction materials and, as mentioned earlier, biodegradable coffins. It's a real shame the mushroom surfboard idea didn't take off, but one of the stumbling blocks was the inability to shape the mushroom-foam precisely.
Big potential was sounded out in 2015 when Arctic Foam collaborated with Stephen Mayfield (Professor of biology and algae geneticist at UC, San Diego) for a project fronted with well-known surfer, Rob Machado. An algae-based foam surfboard was mooted as being the next big thing, but sadly there's been no news of this project coming to fruition, but we could be wrong. Since then, Professor Mayfield has developed algae-based flip flops and most recently his world first* biodegradable shoes featuring 100% plant-based uppers. However, a question mark remains over the soles which are made of a biodegradable polyurethane. Wouldn't that mean the sole is shedding microplastics when they biodegrade? Again, could be wrong. Similar initiatives have been spotted recently, where a plant-based additive helps with the biodegrading process of a plastic component. We were contacted just last month to look at claims of EVA foam traction pads (EVA foam is a plastic made by mixing ethylene and vinyl acetate) that contain this additive which, we believe, speeds up the breakdown of plastic. Ironically, it would probably be safer for the EVA foam to not breakdown into thousands of pieces, thus making it easier to spot as one large piece.
*A few months before the announcement of Professor Mayfield's biodegradable shoe in April 2021, German designer Laura Muth was showcasing her biodegradable shoe in January 2021.
Speaking of shoes…
Solutions - Part II - From outside the surfing world
This is the exciting part. Kicking off with Reebok's plant-based shoe from a few years ago, made with organic cotton, a corn-based bioplastic sole and castor bean oil for the insole. It's not 100% plant-based, but it is the first ever shoe to be certified by the USDA as containing 75% bio-based materials. Plant-based materials can be dyed with natural pigments and consideration should be given to embossed logos (as demonstrated by Vissla), rather than traditional branding that may include ink, glue, patches, stitching and additional small plastic parts. Less is more.
The array of plant-based 'leather' being developed and/or already on the market, is mind-blowing. There's a leather made from apple waste discarded in juice and cider production, one made from mushrooms that has a range by Stella McCartney and is also backed by Adidas and Lululemon, and a return to using the fique plant as a natural fiber - historically grown then woven into rough sacks to store and carry coffee and cocoa. Love wine? Save the planet by wearing shoes made from grape leather, from the by-product of wine making.
Best of all, here's a plant that grows into the shape of a container. US-based sculptor, Andrew Mowbray, discovered the Lagenaria Gourds plant, which has been used in the construction of functional sea vessels for thousands of years by cultures spanning the globe. Historically, they've been dried and used as bottles, ladles, and musical instruments. These gourds dry to a hard, structural wood-like state after being harvested.
You might be wondering how these materials and designs can become more mainstream, in a bid to oust toxic, non-renewable materials. We'd like to challenge one of the large global surfboard manufacturers to to break the traditional PU/EPS foam construction and be the first to come up with something truly unique and truly sustainable. Timber surfboards should continue their renaissance and break into the mainstream, which is already slowly-but-surely happening.
Perhaps we can bring manufacturing back onshore to ensure more jobs and a boost to the economy, then we can export to the lesser-surfing nations rather than the other way round. A network of local micro-factories (as proposed by Wyve, to be located at popular surf spots) will massively reduce the carbon footprint of travel, energy and packaging that it takes to create a surfboard.
Got an idea but need a boost? There are plenty of startup / incubator initiatives to nurture ideas and get people motivated. Nothing like a deadline and a prize to combat procrastination or imposter syndrome. If you don't do it, someone else will.
If you're a surfboard manufacturer reading this... you snooze you lose! Keep up with the latest innovation trends, which happen to be leaning on the planet-friendly side, and you'll be thankful in a few years from now.
But maybe our efforts should be focused on fine-tuning the timber surfboard revolution. Locally sourced materials (remember, timber is a renewable material) and onshore production facilities will massively reduce toxicity and the overall carbon footprint, and it's difficult to argue against it being the most truly sustainable option. Nature really does have all the answers right in front of us, yet we as a society, often choose to over-innovate to drive down cost, increase the speed of production, boost product performance and ultimately enable mass consumption. All adding to the existing heavy burden on our natural environment. Let's rethink priorities at the initial design stage and the rest will fall into place.