Environment: why riding a wood surfboard matters

Out in a packed line-up recently and the only surfer on a wooden surfboard, I jokingly quipped that everyone else was destroying the planet. “Aren’t we all,” came a cynical reply. The answer to that comment is, yes we are.

News circulated last year about a green surfboard verification programme. The initiative comes from Southern California outfit Sustainable Surf, a non-profit start-up NGO. A report on the initiative notes that petroleum, polyurethane, polyester resin, polystyrene foam, PVC and many other substances are still being widely used to produce surf gear and equipment. Tell us something we don’t already know.

The report goes on to say that Sustainable Surf has been introducing the first ever green surfboard verification program – Ecoboard – to help move the industry forward and educate surfers on their options in buying a better board. Current minimum qualification for Ecoboard labeling require the surfboard to be made from at least one of the following components: foam blank made from at least 25% recycled foam or at least 25% biological content; alternative blank structure made from majority content (75%) renewable materials such as wood or bamboo; and resin made from at least 15% total biological content.

So, in short, move away from foam either in part or in total (like hollow wood boards).

If something like this gained steam,it could be an important step forward in encouraging manufacturers to reach environmental standards, while also rewarding those who have already reached those standards.

I do worry a little about the details however. Apart from a few exceptions, I don’t see a huge amount of attention in seriously addressing environmental concerns in the surfing industry. The impression I get is that, like in other economic sectors, there’s been a lot of marketing around green issues, but that this hasn’t been matched by systemic changes in products.

With some exceptions, surfers don’t seem very concerned about the toxicity of the surfboards they ride. I fear that the environment as a driver of choice isn’t as high on the agenda as it could or should be. Which doesn’t mean that we’re not on the right path.

But until the average surfer can start to think about their equipment in terms of how it best integrates with the world around them, and adapt their wave riding equipment and experience to that, rather than some mythical or unattainable performance metric, change will be slow in coming and the huge gap between the image of surfers as clean, ocean-loving folk and the uncomfortable reality that what we do has very nasty consequences for the world around us, will remain.

I’ve been hesitant to trump the benefits of hollow wood surfboards because I don’t want to bandy about the ‘eco-friendly’ label without being sure of my facts and thus being guilty of ‘green-washing’. Production of any surfboard, including wood surfboards, is going to have an environmental impact on the world around us. I’ve come to the conclusion that the question of scale is important and perhaps that is where the ecoboard project has benefits in that it seems to aim for some kind of quantification of the environmental effect of the various surfboards available.

From my own research I’ve been able to establish that there are very real environmental credentials to riding wood surfboards, including a study which found that, in production, hollow wood surfboards produced less than half the emissions of a normal foam surfboard. Think about that – less than half. That’s massive. You can read more on the Environment page on my website.

The above, of course, is just about the surfboard. We’re not even talking about the trip to the beach yet. 

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