by Stuart Gooding and Chris Sanders
Things seem to have gone a bit quiet in the search for the perfect ‘ecoboard’, although a quick Google will reveal a number of options on the market. The reality is most of us still ride boards that have a dubious environmental footprint in sharp contrast to the environmental ethos that tends to underlie surfing. But what’s the way forward? Although improvements in materials are being made, are we really going to see big jumps in the sustainability of surfboards, and everyday surfers riding ‘ecoboards’? Maybe, but perhaps the surf industry needs to carefully consider what an ecoboard really is and how principles such as ecodesign might apply to a surfboard. It may be the case that the best way forward may not be exactly what you’d expect, but might involve us changing the way we usually do things.
What can the surf industry learn from eco-design?
Eco-design is design that considers the whole lifecycle of product from cradle to grave. It considers everything from procurement of the materials, their transport, manufacture and disposal. By analysing each stage of the product lifecycle (in a ‘lifecycle analysis) you can determine which design changes have the greatest benefit in terms of reducing environmental impact. Importantly, this analysis has to be based on some sort of unit of use, so for example the impact per surf or impact per wave caught. Once this is determined different design options can be compared. The idea of ecodesign using lifecycle assessment is relatively new but in some cases has led to some surprising findings. These include, for example, the finding that product durability and longevity is more important than gains made by choosing more ‘environmentally friendly materials.’
So what does this mean for surfboard design? Well there are some promising developments in terms of materials that can be found, including going back to using wood. At the same time it seems that boards that combine foam and epoxy or polyester resin get a fairly bad rep in terms of sustainability. However, this may not be the right way to think about it. These kind of ‘normal boards’ can in fact be highly durable and long-lasting if looked after. This is particularly true for epoxy boards. They can also offer other advantages, such as being easily repaired (this is certainly true for PU and polyester resin boards). This means that impact per ‘unit of use’ might actually be quite low, despite difficulties with things like recycling of these materials. But the mention of recycling and use brings us onto some other points related to ecodesign. Are we really using the stock of boards we have efficiently and when does a board actually reach the end of its life? Surfing has become so aligned with modern day consumerism that boards are often treated like short-life disposable consumer products. This, combined with the competitive nature of many surfers, who look to changes in their boards as quick (but often ineffective) solutions to improve their ability, has meant that the turnover of boards and therefore environmental impact is likely to be high. These things suggest that we might need to go about things differently in order to make more radical jumps in term of surfboard sustainability.
So what’s next?
Despite a lack of major industry backed forward movement on environmentally friendly alternatives to the modern surfboard, there’s a few things that we can do already to think about protecting the environment in terms of our surfboards. Some of these are pretty simple but are often overlooked by both the surf industry in it’s strive for profit and growth and the individual in terms of our consumption patterns. Here’s a few ideas.
Design for longevity
Surfboards should be designed to last. Too many boards are pumped out of both large and small factories with a short shelf life. They age fast, yellow, ding and snap too quickly. Surfboards made from stronger resins such as epoxy last much longer. This might be as simple as adding an extra layer of glass, which for 90% of surfers is unlikely to affect their performance. Boards that last a long time can be re-sold rather than end up in the landfill.
Repair and re-use
Surfers are on the whole fairly good at ding repair. We need to be. Too often you’re caught in the middle of nowhere with a chunk out of your board. Hail solar resins, a quick fix that can prove essential to getting back in the water. We need to get better at repairing surfboards and be willing to fix old boards. Too often you take a surfboard into the shop and you’re told that it’s worthless to repair, you might as well get something new – but if the board works and you like it, why not keep it going. We’ve all had that board that we’ve struggled to let die, the board you still hold on too even though it snapped a year ago, just in case you ever get round to sticking it together and bringing it back to life. Getting the most out of what we have is sensible, keeping it going a year or two extra despite it going a bit yellow – that’s a few less surfboards you’re getting through in your surf career and it’ll save you money too. One positive aspect of social media has been that surfboards now have a fairly lively second hand market – keeping boards going and in use. Similarly if you’ve got some skill – reshaping your own board could be a good bet.
Board rental clubs
Busy beaches and areas could consider board rental clubs whereby for a monthly or yearly fee, an agreement is made that boards can be rented for a time period (say a month) and you can take it away and do what you see fit with it. This would allow a variety of boards to be ridden, expanding both your surfing experience and allowing you to make a more informed choice when it comes to purchasing. One down side is the cost if you damage the board. Most surfers don’t have access to what the pro’s or the rich do – the choice to ride a wide range of boards, but board rental clubs could change this and at the same time ensure that when people do purchase a board, they’re fully informed. There’s some examples of this in the US and the feedback from surfers seems good. Check out https://newportboardclub.com/
Rethink the quiver
Surfers can be indecisive. How many times, do you struggle to know which board to surf, which beach or at what state of tide. It’s not easy. For many of us though this expands into our quiver – small wave boards, big wave boards, boards for reefs, beaches. Maybe we just need less boards and learn to love and surf one or two boards well. Choice is great, but how many times do we feel we’ve taken the wrong board for the conditions. And let’s face it, most of us are not going to be pros, so why consume boards like they do? Another idea would be to look for a board that is going to be a good allrounder. One that will keep you happy is small summer surf and still let you paddle in easily on those big days. Some modern day designs are great for this.
The way forward is unlikely to be through incremental innovation in materials and design – but rather rethinking how as surfers, we consume the boards we buy and how we approach surfing. It’s worth having a think about how you use boards – at the end of the day, alongside flying to exotic destinations and driving to the beach – it’s the foam under your feet that adds up to your surfing footprint.