Can we get over our addiction to white toxic sticks?
INTRO – Associate Editor Matt Pearce has written extensively about sustainability and how living a more examined lifestyle can have a positive effect on our planet. In this issue he looks at how the kitesurf wave boards we ride are made and what that means for our environment
WORDS > Matt Pearce
Riding a wave, be it behind a kite or otherwise, is a moment when even those of us without the slightest lean towards veganism, mindfulness or correct chakra alignment are communing with the natural world in a very real way. You’re balancing on a small wedge of glassed-up foam and riding what is essentially a wave of energy that’s travelled thousand of miles to throw itself boldly onto our shores. For a fleeting moment you get to ride that wave before its eventual implosion onto dry land. The things that make us able to have that incredible experience, courtesy of nature itself, are the boards we ride, but how often do we consider how these magical craft come into being?
The mental image we often have of kitesurf board construction is an earthy one of fixated shapers wearing dusty boardshorts in a small, cluttered room adorned with surf posters and memorabilia, studiously handcrafting boards for us to go out and ride. It’s a wholesome image and totally in line with the spiritually worthy pursuit that riding waves is, but how accurate is it? Is it at all possible that the reality behind how our boards are made, and the byproducts of the process, don’t go hand-in-hand with the beautiful and environmentally harmless activity of riding a wave?
The truth is that surfboard construction is actually a pretty toxic process in which chemicals derived from petrochemicals are used, and a considerable volume of waste is generated. Foam, resin and the carbon cost of shipping boards around the world combine to produce a product that, by the time it reaches our board bag, has left quite a carbon footprint in its wake. However, there are a number of brands who have examined the process and who are making a concerted effort to clean up the way in which boards are produced. The first, and perhaps most challenging factor, is the main component of the board – the foam. When surfboards were first produced back in the 1950s, polyurethane foam (PU foam) was the norm and, although it was the only option, it was easy to shape. However, it was (and still is) toxic as were the solvents used in the laminating and cleaning processes, so the shapers using it were exposed to some very unpleasant chemicals. When boards reach the end of their lifespan and find their way to a landfill site these solvents may, in time, leak into the ground, then potentially the water table and, ultimately, our bodies through the water we eat and food we consume. Upon seeing this many shapers switched to EPS (expanded polystyrene) foam, which is far less toxic. Based in Ventura, California, surfboard and kiteboard builders FCD are owned and operated by Fletcher Chouinard, the son of Yvon Chouinard who founded Patagonia. When they really started looking into the realities of surfboard construction in 1997 they quickly realized they were up against some serious challenges in finding alternative materials to clean up the process. Switching to EPS foam was one of the first things they did. Talking of this new method of construction, Fletcher said, “For most of our kitesurf boards we use a special composite foam that’s extra flexible and we use flexi bamboo stringers, too. We’ve found this to be fantastic for the beatings and abuse that boards (and your body) take in chop at high speeds. It has a dampness that absorbs chatter and flexes into turns, giving you a tighter radius turning arc but a fast, flat planing surface.”. In absorbing chatter over chop the flex makes for a much more stable and secure ride, which allows you to turn harder and faster at speed. “Anyone can snap any board given the wrong flat landing or nasty sandbar, but we are constantly impressed by the durability and have never had a kite-construction board delaminate.”, he went on to say.
However, while EPS foam may well be the greener of the two options, there are drawbacks to it. PU foam may be toxic and EPS is the more cutting edge material, but PU foam doesn’t absorb water and is more easily repaired. If you ever see an old board being unloaded from the back of someone’s car, yellowing in colour and covered in some obvious repair patches, it will most likely be a PU board. While some people might turn their nose up at PU boards, one thing that is clear is that neither foam is going to break down organically. PU may be worse for the environment but the fact that a PU board can be repaired and, as a result, enjoy a longer lifespan means that it will take longer to find its way to a landfill and this makes it, to some extent, a viable option from an environmental perspective.
Roberto Ricci has an interesting perspective on the matter. Here is a man who prides himself and his company on their board-crafting heritage, quite in keeping with their artisanal Tuscan roots, and who has been building boards for decades. He is deeply aware of the need to produce boards that don’t harm the environment and RRD have more product lines than perhaps any other single brand in the industry, but he believes their classic PU boards – the most basic construction board they offer – are the ones that he says he sees floating around the longest. “I believe a PU board is an investment if you want a long lasting board.” he says. “Maybe in terms of looks the PU board might look scruffier over time, but from my experience it will last longer. The day you crack an EPS board and it gets water in it’s ruined, but with a PU board you can chop off the nose and it still won’t absorb water. You can destroy the look of the board for years on end but the feel of it in the water will be almost the same and it can still be used.”
While RRD don’t make environmental concerns a key part of their image, Roberto clearly has strong beliefs on the subject and has considered the subject extensively. “We don’t think the environment is just a fashionable issue and we always consider it, but the reality is that foam makes up more than 90% of the board’s volume and it’s what you throw away in the end as it cannot easily be recycled.” That’s not to say he hasn’t searched for alternatives, having once shaped a board out of corn foam in his factory in Thailand only to come back the next day and find it had lost its shape, reinforcing his view that until a viable alternative is produced that can offer good performance, polystyrene based foams are the only real choice. As with many good shapers, Roberto is not willing to sacrifice durability, longevity and performance for a supposed green edge to his marketing.
While foam makes up the bulk of a board there are other components worth considering and the resin used in producing surfboards is responsible for 40% of the board’s overall carbon footprint. The resins that are traditionally used in the layering up and laminating parts of the board production process are highly toxic and we’ve seen some brands taking steps to avoid using it by switching to bio resins. Unfortunately, some brands ‘greenwash’ the issue by using bio resins, but many of them are apparently no better than petrochemical resins. Fletcher explains: “The bio content of resins is tricky and we make sure that it’s not food crop derived, which is one of the biggest fallacies in the environmental / green movement, as soy and corn use far too much land, water and diesel to make sense as a petroleum alternative.” One alternative he does have hope for, however, is the Supersap resin from Entropy, which is produced from post-industrial food waste and doesn’t require any crops to be grown and harvested to produce it. This is the exact resin that Airush use in some of their key models, so we caught up with head designer, Clinton Filen, to find out more. “By using plant based components like the Entropy resin systems, which use increasingly renewable bio content, we are reducing the carbon footprint of a board’s production by as much as 25%.” he reckons. This is significant and it’s emblematic of Airush’s push towards producing sustainable products that will last the test of time. Clinton and his team – who work in a design centre that runs on around 60% solar energy – put a great deal of effort into producing products that last longer and that limit the waste created in their production. The first, and to a kitesurfer the most significant, thing they’ve done is to make their boards more durable and to lessen the amount of harmful products used in the ‘finishing’ of them by using bamboo, a readily available and renewable material, in their Active Bamboo board decks. This means less fibreglass needs to be applied, less resin needs to be used and the board’s lifespan is greatly increased. While some people will point out that a bamboo top sheet may only make up a small portion of that board’s total volume, the increase to the board’s lifetime is hard to dispute. Of course there are factors beyond the construction of a conventionally built board that contribute to the overall CO2 output released into the environment. Clinton determines approximately 50kg of C02 can be allocated per board from the production stage to when it reaches the end user (quite staggering when you consider that a kitesurf board normally weighs roughly between 3 and 3.6 kilos). The issue of shipping or flying boards around the world is a huge factor as the shipping and aviation industries are two of the largest single emitters of carbon into the atmosphere. By producing part of their surfboard line near Lisbon in Portugal, RRD have taken steps towards lessening this detrimental aspect of their production process. Their head tester, Abel Lago, lives comparatively close (when compared with Thailand) in Galicia and is able to drive down, test boards and quality check them before they leave the factory. Plus, as Europe is the largest single market in kiteboarding, the boards produced in Portugal don’t have to travel nearly as far as they would if they were coming from the Far East. This lessens the overall CO2 costs of these boards but that’s not to say that boards from Thailand and China are inherently more harmful to the environment as transporting a board from Asia only amounts to about 10% of the overall CO2 cost. The only way to really cut out the carbon cost of getting a board shipped to you is by only riding boards produced by your local shaper and that’s not an option for all of us, so it’s a positive step for any board that finds its way to somewhere in Europe.
Another significant move is the decision that Airush have made to offset the carbon produced in making their boards. We’ve been quite scathing of carbon offsetting in the past but Clinton takes a different view and, while he was skeptical at first and fully believes that buying more durable products and less cheap disposable things is the answer, he believes there are merits to carbon offsetting.
“There are certain processes that will do harm and there are currently no immediate solutions, so we need to work out how we can compensate for those. With the Thor Heyerdahl Park (a climate park Airush work with where trees are planted in Myanmar) and projects we are closer to, we can actually monitor the progress and see the social impact it has.”
Through working with the Thor Heyerdahl organisation Airush came up with their own carbon offset programme, called ‘One Ton for the Planet’. For every board (and kite) they sell, they are able to mitigate around one ton of CO2 which is roughly 20 times the CO2 footprint of getting that board to a customer; and that’s a tremendous move towards lessening the impact of producing the boards we ride.
Something else that some brands are doing is to limit the waste that comes as a side product of production and this is important as, in some cases, as much foam is wasted when shaping a single board as the amount that is actually used in forming the board’s core. For example FCD now recycle and condense left over foam and sell it on to recycling firms. There are some companies who now break excess foam down and remould it into new blanks. There is even a newly emerging process known as ‘Reres’, which allows brands to reclaim EPS foam, cloth and resin from their boards by dissolving the resin component so that they can remove the board’s components and reuse or recycle them. Another entirely different way that equipment can be given a second life is through social initiatives that engage with local communities in impoverished areas, most commonly through passing on salvaged or simply unwanted boards to be used again by local surfers and kiters.
The steps that are being taken to make the construction of kitesurf boards more sustainable are great but, ultimately, just as politicians tend to build their policies around the issues that they know will get them elected, so too will brands respond to the needs of the market – but if kiteboarders ask for boards that are produced with the environment in mind it will drive manufacturers to research more eco-friendly production methods and these will become the standard. Obviously there are limitations and, as Fletcher says, even carving a board from a naturally fallen log will release some CO2 into the atmosphere, so unless a totally biodegradable board can ever be made, there will always be the argument that you’re better off buying something that will be as durable and long-lasting as possible. He went onto say, “The most sustainable thing you can do as a board builder, surfer or kiter is make and purchase quality boards that will last for a long time and not become obsolete. The more ‘disposable’ boards you make or buy, the more impact you have on the earth.”.
But why is all this so important? And why can’t we just get on with the business of kitesurfing without worrying about any possible ill effects that we’re having in the process? Well, it’s not just because CO2 emissions are choking the ozone layer and causing rising sea levels and untold potential destruction. It’s also not because future generations of people may not get to enjoy pristine oceans due to the 40 million pounds of plastic floating in the North Pacific Ocean and in the similar gyres like it elsewhere on our planet. It’s because the more plastic we produce and throw away the more we are contributing to the potential demise of our species. More than 50% of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean and it’s the main protein source of much of the world’s population, so if we choke it with plastic then there are untold consequences for us as a species. If we take the view that every product we buy, from the shrink-wrapped vegetables and disposable plastic cutlery to the boards we ride contributes to these issues and, in a way, the future of our planet and everything that lives on it, then as a mass of people we can make a real contribution to solving the problems that we have created for ourselves on Earth.
As Clinton pointed out, Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society said, “If the oceans die, we all die”, so it’s not about being an environmentalist, it’s about understanding that every single person has to act now with as much urgency as possible.
There is more at stake here than getting a cheap board that will last you one season before you switch to the latest model…
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