05 February 2022
Where do all the surfboards go?
[5 minute read]
Depending on where you source your information, anywhere from 400,000 up to an outlandish figure of 13-24 million new surfboards are made globally each year. Some sources say it's 400,000 from the US market alone. Add to that, an estimated three million bodyboards and also the growing number of surfers entering the scene since the pandemic started.
The softboard market (foamies) has exploded in recent years with brands such as Mick Fanning, Softlite and Spooked Kooks often spotted at popular city and family beaches. The latter is made with recycled plastic, bonus green points there. Here in Australia, softboards are permitted between the flags which are designated for swimming only, which adds to their appeal.
An in-depth and fascinating analysis of the surfboard manufacturing numbers can be found here, from respected surf journalist Nick Carroll's article featured in Surfline in 2019. Ever wondered what the carbon footprint is of your board? Decarbonated Sports, based in the UK, created a handy calculator for anyone to use. And if you're really keen, check out this detailed research by Tobias Schultz, featuring a lifecycle and material assessment for various types of surfboards.
The modern surfboard contains a medley of materials, adhesives and accessories like the traction/tail pad, stringer, leash, leash plug, fins and fin boxes - meaning the entire package is a tricky item to recycle or dispose of.
One solution, demonstrated by surfboard giants Firewire, makes the most of excess foam dust produced when shaping boards - and transforms them into tiles/pavers that produce one and a half tiles per surfboard shaped. While on the subject of transforming waste - California-based shaper Ryan Harris knows a thing or two about running a zero-waste production line, creating a range of products from all the excess resin from shaping his eco-boards.
To date, there doesn't seem to be a viable solution for dealing with the many millions of surfboards that are currently in circulation around the world. A highly promising idea was mooted by shaper and entrepreneur, Nev Hyman, at his appearance on stage at the Global Wave Conference back in February 2020. Nev spoke of a business idea where any old surfboards could be thrown into a shredding machine (like a tree chipper) and the resulting plastic pellets are turned into building materials such as tiles and wall panels. The presentation was truly impressive, along with a table full of prototypes to demonstrate its huge potential. Unfortunately, that was the last we heard of this idea. Perhaps it suffered a similar ending to the highly-promising Nev House initiative which - after so much excitement - sadly left investors with a lot of unanswered questions. The Nev House journey may still be alive, it just depends on who you speak with.
Others have given it their best shot too, such as The Resurf Project which raised capital by crowdfunding in 2014, which is now almost impossible to find on the internet - with their website domain up for grabs. More detective work serves up similar outcomes with Recycled Surfboards, an initiative in the US, which seems to have disappeared from in front of our eyes like foam dust in the wind.
It's well known in the surfing world that expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) is considered more environmentally-friendly because it can be recycled - polyurethane (PU) blanks cannot* - and the shaping process is less toxic, however there are limited initiatives encouraging you to recycle your EPS surfboard. Waste to Waves is another example with early high hopes but seems to have lost momentum (not enough surf shops supporting it, perhaps), a promising initiative driven by our close allies at Sustainable Surf and Surfrider.
*Article revision: Polyola Surf, based in Anglet, France, contacted us to say they're currently making PU surfboards that can be recycled in a recycling/liquifying process. Their boards contain 80% recycled PU foam from old surf craft, and can recycle those again upon return. Polyola's slick operations take place in Europe to service the European surf market, so the whole process has an impressively low impact on the environment.
Countless surfboards are destined for landfill after one too many dings, scrapes and snaps, but to what extent should the damage reach before a board is deemed unfixable? Professional ding repairs can be costly, sometimes costing a third or a quarter of the total price of a low-budget surfboard. Ideally, we can all learn how to do the fixing ourselves, but how about community hubs where you can get your board fixed, rent a board, grab a coffee and make friends. The Goat Shed is exactly this, located in Christchurch, New Zealand, it's a community surfboard library, shaping room and a space to talk about all things surfing. You can even get your bike fixed!
Carve Surf & Coffee offer a similar-but-slightly-different scenario. Based in Florida, USA, it's primarily a café but with surfboards for rent and a membership-based service, the Board Club, for regular customers to access. These positive examples of community are helping to break down the nasty tribalism and individualistic flaws of surf culture, and instead promotes a feel-good factor to ensure everyone's involved, regardless of socio-economic status.
If all else fails... your unloved surfboards - at the very least - can be used for aesthetic purposes. Surfboard Souls Manly takes damaged, donated boards and transforms them into art for your home or workplace. For the more bespoke and traditional, Zachary Bennett-Brook is an Indigenous Australian artist who paints stunning Aboriginal designs onto surfboards.
We'd love to hear of any ideas for recycling, repurposing or reinvention of old surfboards. While this occurs, we're confident the surf industry will continue to drive innovation with the design and manufacturing of brand new surfboards. It's essential to continue pushing the boundaries of materials science but also consider the end-of-life stage of surfboards, perhaps with a disposal plan included with every purchase, or financial incentives to return the product to the manufacturer.
Surfboards haven't changed much since the late 1950s so there's no better time - environmentally, technologically and politically, to tackle this head-on and come up with exciting, planet-friendly alternatives that reduce the need for landfill space. Let's do this...