That the appliance surfers use to tap this energy is made from petroleum-based foam, polyester resins and chemically treated fiberglass has long been surfing’s quiet contradiction.
A broken board tossed in a landfill will take generations to biodegrade; the plastic fins probably never will. Even the thin strip of wood that runs down the middle to provide strength comes at an environmental cost — a minuscule yield from the raw material it’s milled from. “A ‘green surfboard’ is inherently an oxymoron at this point,” says Joey Santley, 44, a frenetic surfboard shaper and entrepreneur in San Clemente on a mission to create an environmentally friendly surfboard — or at least one with a carbon footprint that’s less titanic. “Hopefully in the future it won’t be.” In recent years, a wave of experimentation has sought to detoxify surfboards by using materials that suggest the Whole Earth catalog rather than the periodic table of elements: hemp, bamboo, kelp and silk instead of fiberglass; foam made from soy and sugar rather than polyurethane, which is composed of toluene diisocyanate, or TDI, a possible carcinogen that can be inhaled and absorbed through the skin; adhesive resins made from linseed, pine and vegetable oils. But changing the way surfboards are made has proved difficult. The few who have sought to go greener have struggled not only with finding just the right materials but also with overcoming resistance from shapers and professional surfers reluctant to fix what they don’t consider broken.
After experimenting with castor oil, sugar and corn, McMahon’s company found that blanks made with soybean oil were as strong and light as conventional foam.
Two years ago, he and a partner formed Green Foam Blanks, which makes rigid foam surfboard cores by fusing polyurethane with recycled polyurethane dust gathered from workshops that would otherwise discard it. That yields more boards per ounce of toxic polyurethane.
The company recently signed a deal with a leading maker of traditional blanks to manufacture and distribute its product in North America, Japan, Europe and Costa Rica. Still, this being a start-up, Santley is not just part-owner, he’s also the chief dust collector. Darting down a gangway between two nondescript buildings recently, he bounds up the stairs of one of the neighborhood’s numerous surfboard factories. Under a whirring cutting machine, he hits gold: a pile of white polyurethane foam shavings as light as Rocky Mountain snow. “This is like a perfect powder day,” Santley says, shoveling the stuff into a trash bag and holding it aloft. “Probably enough for about a dozen boards. And it won’t end up in the landfill.”
Hat’s off to you Joey and we hope your quest for a green surfboard is successful!