Waste Not, Want Not

Cliff Kapono is studying how trashed surfboards impact our planet's health

Over 400,000 surfboards are created each year, and yet many are made with toxic, non-biodegradable materials that meet a permanent grave in our landfills and waterways. Cliff Kapono, a Hawaiian native and a Chemistry PhD student at UC San Diego, is on a mission to find sustainable approaches to surfboard waste, the main topic of his aptly named documentary, Surf Wasted. We spoke with Kapono about the symbolic importance of the surfboard, the effectiveness of chemistry as an environmental platform, and the steps we can take to protect our earth through the boards we ride.

Does traveling help reinforce the notion that people around the world view surfboards as an important part of the culture worth preserving?

It does. Growing up in Hilo, Hawaii, I could see the sentimental value placed on boards, which I think holds true for surfers across towns big and small all over the world, especially where you’re removed from the eyes of the industry. People see worth in preserving their boards because they see that this object somehow makes them a better person. Not only does the surfboard provide us so much pleasure, but many people, from New York to Santa Cruz to San Diego, say that surfing has saved their lives. The board is a cultural icon. Every surfer believes this to some extent, even if you're the salty, grungy guy protecting his point. For me, it’s important to recognize that this tool has helped us become better. If we're just self-improving at the expense of the environment, though, I feel like that's something that we should address and recognize.

Why the title, Surf Wasted?

The big question is this: what happens to a board after it breaks? I wanted people to realize that the underlying theme here is all about waste. It's about the end-of-life cycle of their boards. We're quickly losing the luxury of space in Hawaii to dispose of broken boards that could be creatively reused, a trend that continues to spread continentally. Now, the surfing population is the minority across other outdoor populations — imagine all of the chemicals that go into water repellents for tents, or even for a rain jacket. Those are undoubtedly harmful, and they make up the majority of the waste for outdoor recreation. But just because surfers are a small population, we shouldn't turn a blind eye to what we're impacting.

That eco-friendly rail holds up just fine on a breakneck grab.

That eco-friendly rail holds up just fine on a breakneck grab.

What do you see in Hawaii right now that frustrates you?

Seeing boards in the trash. To me, that blows my mind. On the North Shore especially, you see halves of boards thrown in piles next to dumpsters. That degree of waste is overwhelming to me. I've seen the rubbish mountains in my hometown. That’s not land. That’s trash that has slowly piled up. There's this trickle of what I can only describe as green juice that's coming from the moisture that's inside the compressed waste, and it's compacting and it's flowing into the ocean. There's no regulation on that kind of thing.

If all of us work together on issues like that, we can move forward. But if we hide behind this false idea that we're being sustainable when we're only 20 percent there, and we still have to throw our old boards into the landfill, that's not acceptable.

What advantage is there in chemistry being the medium for your message?

At UC San Diego, a large area of my study is focused on the coral reefs, because I wanted to learn how to apply modern medicine to conservation. If you look at environmentalism and conservationism, it's always a struggle to get people to support through financial resources or through volunteering. You almost need to twist someone's arm to save the rainforest. Everyone cares about it, but the timescales on return are much longer. If we do something now, in 100 years, we'll see results. People don't like to hear that.

Compare that to medicine. If people are told that they’ll feel better next week if they take a certain pill, they’re instantly drawn in. That's the timescale that I think translates into monetary support or support of resources. The lab that I'm a part of is medicinally heavy. For example, we try to understand the cures for cystic fibrosis to see how it could help rectify issues with agricultural die-off. These are all investigations that translate into real-time turnovers that people will invest in. That’s how I try to consider the environment. How can we look at a coral reef like it's a human? Can we save this colony like it's a person? If we can, that’s worth celebrating, just as much as we're celebrating a human life.

The dialogue around climate change has become heatedly polarized. How can we foster a constructive global discussion?

First of all, I don’t want to imply that my edit is an authoritative analysis on alternative surfboard construction or sustainable surfboard practices. I also don’t want to come off as preachy. This is basically Matty [Raynor] and me sharing how we feel. Whether people agree or not, it's good for us to have a conversation and to hear if people think we're tripping. It’s also important to make that knowledge accessible to anyone. I'd be willing to hold online forums and have full roundtables for the gnarliest troll anywhere to share what they know. Let's share your story, bruddah. Let's give you a platform to talk about this. If you are speaking from a place that makes sense, let's share it with the world. This isn't about trying to sell Marko blanks or algae foams. This is about trying to seriously reduce the waste that's building on islands. Because once the island goes, it's just going to extrapolate onto a continent. That's the bigger picture. The surfboard is just a segue to this whole idea of waste. How can we keep a quality of lifestyle but begin to move in a direction that's more accountable?

North Shore shaper Matty Raynor, standing beside three blanks made of polyurethane foam, a bio-based algae foam, and recycled EPS foam. Which is which?

North Shore shaper Matty Raynor, standing beside three indistinguishable blanks made of polyurethane foam, a bio-based algae foam, and recycled EPS foam.

What questions should we ask as surfers and consumers the next time we choose a board?

The best thing you can do is to find out what types of materials are being used. If there's just a label that says it's certified to be this or that, it's important for us to figure out what that means exactly. It's like the word Organic, or GMO-Free. What does that mean? The consumer has the power to ask specific questions, too. It could be that only the foam is better for the environment. Maybe when I get rid of all the cloth, the leftover is still harmful. It's not a matter of asking, "Is this is a green, sustainable surfboard," because we're not quite there yet.

We also have to ask questions like, "How long will this board last? Will it break easy? If I buy this board, am I buying something I know will break in two months, but it will help me do an aerial?" So it's not just knowing what to ask the surf shop; it's about knowing what to ask ourselves.

You make a compelling case for doing our homework.

It's all about being educated, being able to get information about what's happening. I'm not talking about degrees and certifications. I mean actually going out and spending a little bit of time pursuing the truth yourself and being diligent in finding the truth.

If we're educated on the situation, then we can make the choice. That's the power of learning, of going out and trying to do something good in the world. Parasitic is too strong of a word, but there's so much language in our culture of taking things for ourselves. What can it give me? What can surfing give me? What can this surfboard give me? What can the shaper give me? That's not what surfing started out as. At its core, everyone knows that pure feeling when they ride a surfboard. Surfing isn’t about taking advantage of objects and individuals or exploiting them for our gain. We need to learn from each other on how to move forward.

Kapono, stomping an air in the name of science.

Kapono, stomping an air in the name of science.