The Next Big Wave

Surfers may seem like free-spirited nature lovers, but they’re now facing the consequences of their sport’s negative environmental impact.

By Lisa Stasiulewicz

The sport of surfing—the solitary figure surrounded by seawater, drenched in sunlight—is inextricably linked with Mother Nature. Indeed, surfers are reliant on her for the blessing of a perfect wave. And their reputation for being eco-minded has grown over the last several decades, particularly since the establishment of such organizations as the California-based Surfrider Foundation, which works to keep oceans clean and beaches intact. But while surfers may appear to be role models in the fight for a better planet, their surfboards are proving to be an environmental disaster.

Concerns about the eco-friendliness of surfboards came to a head on December 5, 2005, the day that Gordon “Grubby” Clark, founder and owner of Clark Foam in Laguna Niguel, California, abruptly shut down his business after more than 40 years of operation. At the time, Clark’s business manufactured 90 percent of all blanks—which are the foam cores used to make modern surfboards. He faxed a seven-page swan song to his customers, alluding to pressures he faced from the EPA and the state of California, among others, over the possible environmental and health concerns linked to the materials and methods he used to create the foam cores. Most troubling to the authorities were the toxic fumes emitted from the factory (which was located in an affluent neighborhood), as well as dust emissions and the resins used to make surfboards. “I should have seen this coming many years sooner and closed years ago in a slower, more predictable manner,” says Clark in his fax. “I waited far too long, being optimistic rather than realistic. I also failed to do my homework.”

News of the closure shocked the surfing community worldwide. Clark ordered his workers to dismantle and dispose of his board-making equipment, and grieving surfers gathered at the disposal site to pay their last respects. The abrupt closure of Clark’s business (the date is now known to insiders as “Blank Monday”) sparked a panic that sent surfboard prices soaring. A wave of surfboard thefts started soon after, and the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office suspected it was a result of the publicity surrounding the blank shortage. Now that the biggest supplier had vanished overnight, where would the foam come from? And if the old foam was hazardous, how could manufacturers develop a greener board surfers would want to ride?

Most surfboards today are made from a polyurethane foam blank that’s covered in fiberglass cloth and strengthened and coated with a polyester resin. None of those materials is eco-friendly, and Clark actually admitted the chemicals his company used emitted more than 4,000 pounds of styrene fumes per year. (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says exposure to styrene can affect the central nervous system, causing headaches, fatigue, dizziness, and confusion.) But the biggest environmental culprit may be the blanks themselves. They’re not biodegradable, for starters, and the foam usually contains a chemical called toluene diisocyanate (TDI)—a possible carcinogen that the EPA also says has detrimental effects on the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and central nervous systems. And making the foams releases carbon dioxide and VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, into the atmosphere.

Because of these dangers, some surfers and environmental innovators are experimenting with new materials and methods that will make boards as environmentally friendly as the surfer’s image. But a new wave of change is coming from the southernmost county in England—thousands of miles and an entire ocean away from Clark Foam and California’s sunny shores.

British Invasion

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I bought my first board 41 years ago. It was a nine something Harbour. Heavy, difficult to carry along and not very easy to manoeuver. It cost me 120 bucks.Now, thanks to new materials surfboards are light weight, easy to carry anywhere, fast and very easy to ride.
The price: 500 dollars and up. How much are we going to pay for new boards just because they are "green"? Everybody is jumping on the "green" wagon because it is profitable not because you are doing something to protect our Mother Earth. So, where does this winding road end? Be honest.

Youve got to be kidding me!! 4,000 LBS of styrene a year? The California DOT and municipalities release that on one pipe relining project! The Clean Water Funds support these projects to coat the pipes with thermoset polyester and vinyl-ester resins (40-60% styrene). Underground conditions: leaks,cool temperatures and poor contractor practices fail to cure the laminates fully. Fish kills, home and business evacuations fail to be penalized and current technologies are not used to save a penny, no testing is required to monitor the use of materials and processes. After all, is the DEP or EPA going to fine themselves? A classic example of going after the little guy. See searches for styrene spills, fish kills, pipe relining, trenchless projects. The companies use more than 78 million pounds of resin a year, 31 million pounds are styrene or 310,000 pounds of releases. Why worry about the 4,000 pounds a year from surfboards? If styrene fumes enter a home or business, they will blame it on faulty plumbing or the p-trap was empty. DUH, what is the reason they are fixing the pipe in the first place.

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