At first glance, surfing might seem like an inherently eco-friendly sport. Surfers paddle out and catch waves by sheer force of will and muscle. No need for fossil fuel-burning speed boats to get around. And, surfers have a reputation for caring about ocean pollution. But a closer look reveals that, like most human activities, the environmental impact is far from nil and, consequently, there’s a nascent movement within the surfing industry to clean up it its act.

The bare necessities of surfing are surfboard, wetsuit, good waves and wheels to and fro. The waves are courtesy of Mother Nature, but the choices surfers make to otherwise outfit themselves determine the toll on the environment.

Lightweight polyurethane (PU) boards swathed in fiberglass cloth and polyester resin have been the industry mainstay since heavy wood boards were ditched in the 1950s. Because both PU and polyester are petrochemicals, the enviro impact starts with environmental degradation during petroleum extraction. Then there’s the emission of VOCs (volatile organic chemicals) during PU synthesis from two petrochemicals — a “polyol” plus a highly volatile and toxic isocyanate toluene compound called TID.

The foam molding stage eats up plenty of energy, and more air polluting VOCs are given off when the board is glassed.

The mainstream alternatives to PU boards are made of expanded polystyrene (EPS), another foam derivative of petroleum and with its own enviro drawbacks — like the scrap waste generated carving the blanks out of foam blocks. EPS boards’ claim to being easier on the environment rests on the necessity for an epoxy resin which emits 75 percent less VOCs than the polyester counterpart.

Real efforts to put out greener surfboards are underway in California, although few surfers are clued in to such options.

In a move away from petroleum-sourced materials, Ice-Nine Foam Works in Orange sells a custom PU blank dubbed “the cane” because the polyol component comes from sugar beet scrap material. Company owner John Stillman chose sugar over soy, another option, because using soy would subtract from the food supply. The eco-footprint of the cane boards is also improved by replacing the TDI with MDI, a chemical with 2,500 times lower VOC emissions.

Ice-Nine also makes plenty of conventional PU blanks and has made a point of reducing their environmental impact too. Only wood from a sustainably-managed bass forest is used for the stringers, and precision equipment pours PU into molds, minimizing the air pollution and chemical waste inherent to the traditional “open bucket” pouring method.

By taking Ice-Nine cane blanks and applying a cutting-edge epoxy resin derived largely from pine, Entropy Surfboards in Santa Monica is making the most sustainably constructed foam surfboards anywhere, according to company owners Desi and Rey Banatao.

However, all foam surfboards eventually end up in landfills because an infrastructure for recycling old foam is lacking.

One surfboard that is 100 percent recyclable is a throwback to surfing’s ancient Hawaiian roots. Jon Wegener of Hermosa Beach shapes boards made of paulownia wood finished with just linseed oil and beeswax. The paulownia comes from sustainably managed farms, predominantly in Australia. Hollowing out the longer boards gets around the weight issue. Once retired, a board can be put through a woodchipper to make garden mulch.

Wegener raves about the performance of paulownia boards and says the chief obstacle is to get surfers to give them a try.

But for surfers seriously hooked on foam, there’re other avenues to improve the sport’s eco-profile. Manufacturers are experimenting with all-natural cloth materials, like silk or hemp, in place of fiberglass. Biodegradable surfboard wax made of beeswax, leashes fashioned from recycled urethane, and corn-based plastic leash plugs are all being marketed.

Furthermore, major wetsuit brands offer lines derived from limestone that claim to be warmer than traditional petroleum-based, neoprene versions.

Surfers worth their ocean salt profess that surfing is more than sport: it’s also a deep felt connection to and respect for the sea. As such, there’s plenty a surfer dude or wahine can do every day to protect the oceans. The two biggies are transportation and diet, as both contribute to rising ocean temperatures and acidity by way of greenhouse gas production.

For every 100 miles driven, switching from a 20 mpg vehicle to one averaging 35 mpg saves more than two gallons of gasoline and 40 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. And for days when surfing conditions are poor, nearly 7-foot-long skateboards christened ‘Hamboards’ by their Huntington Beach designer promise a ride that mimics wave surfing while reducing unnecessary driving.

A person eating a vegetarian diet contributes about 1.5 fewer tons per year of greenhouse gases than someone eating a typical American diet, according to a 2006 study by University of Chicago geophysicists. A veg diet also guards against overfishing. Eating organic mitigates polluting agricultural runoff into the ocean from synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides.

There’s no shortage either of opportunities to join in community efforts aimed at protecting the coastline, like participation in beach cleanups. The Surfrider Foundation, which helped win a decade-long battle to “Save Trestles” by defeating a toll road through San Onofre State Beach, epitomizes environmental activism within the surfing community.

Visit to read other environmental articles by Sarah Mosko.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *