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The Green Wave

Will the eco-friendly surfboard ever expand beyond the niche market?

Hawthorne, California—a grid of tired boulevards in southwest Los Angeles—is not a place you'd immediately associate with eco-friendly anything. Smog sits low and heavy in the dirt-colored air. Jumbo airliners belch noise and jet fuel as they roar in and out of nearby LAX. Massive oil-storage tanks rise up behind aging housing blocks. And freeways…everywhere freeways. But there, along a street lined with squat industrial buildings, in a small lot shared with some sort of metal-fabrication shop that emits ear-splitting bangs and shrieks, lies the home of E-Tech Surfboards, a company building and glassing some of the best eco-friendly surfboards in the world.

I was met at the door by co-founder Todd Patterson, a gruff-voiced Army veteran who started E-Tech back in 2011 with his partner, Ryan Harris. Patterson led me past a row of thrusters, strangely shaped hybrids, and enormous SUPs on into the glassing section, which looked and felt like every other glasser's shop in the world, except that the place smelled like…nothing. No sickening aromas of plastic and resin. No brain-melting fumes. No instant headache. No smell of anything at all. "There was a reporter here awhile back who wrote that the resin in our shop smelled like spicy chicken," Patterson said. "I think that's just 'cause the guys next door brought in Thai food for lunch."

That resin, which does not smell anything like spicy chicken, is called Super Sap, and the E-Tech guys buy it from Entropy Resins in Northern California. It's partially made from plant material and is a USDA-certified bio-based material. The first time you witness a board glassed with Super Sap, it's a little bewildering. Patterson mixed up a batch of resin and hardener, then casually poured the mixture on a brand-new recyclable high-performance EPS foam sled. But neither of us wore a respirator; there were no respirators in sight. I had him pour the resin into a small cup so I could take a deep whiff: faint hint of lemony dish soap.

For years, boards built with bio-based materials and recycled foam carried with them a stigma of disappointing performance. But the strides being made by Entropy Resins and Marko Foam, among others, now allow for the eco-minded surfer in the lineup to have his cake and eat it too.

"I'm a disabled Gulf War vet," Patterson explained. "Surfing saved my life." After returning home from Iraq in the early 1990s, he suffered a bout of near-permanent sickness and was eventually diagnosed with Gulf War Syndrome, a nasty malady many doctors attribute to being surrounded by the toxic fumes pouring out of burning munitions dumps. The only thing that seemed to help him feel better was the ocean, so he learned to surf and then almost immediately turned to making his own surfboards. But the poisonous chemical cocktail that is the modern surfboard put Patterson back on his heels. "So I set out to make a healthier board, just for me, without having to poison myself," he said.

The E-Tech shop is filled with boards built with bamboo deck skins, their rails wrapped with a recyclable Kevlar replacement. There's also a 12- foot racing paddleboard glassed with something Harris called "bioglass," a fiberglass substitute made from cellulose. He pulled the paddleboard out of the rafters and handed it to me. It was absurdly light—maybe 20 pounds. It felt like you could strap it to the roof of your electric car with one hand.

"In what other industry is it OK to use the exact same technology for 60 years?" Patterson said when I asked him why it's taken the surf world so long to come around to sustainable materials. I had to admit, his question had me stumped, though the era of Clark Foam monopolistic dominance surely tamped down a great deal of materials experimentation. According to William Finnegan's classic New Yorker article "Blank Monday," Clark punished his customers if he got wind that they'd ordered blanks from somebody else. He once sued a shaper who had hired ex-Clark staffers to help make his own blanks. Clark's blanks were cheap, they were easy to work with, and, largely because of his aggressive business model, they were nearly all that was out there.

The good news, Patterson says, is that the surfers finally seem to be coming around, albeit slowly. E-Tech makes and sells their own boards, but much of their business is in glassing boards shaped by the big boys— …Lost Surfboards, mainly, but also Channel Islands, SUPERbrand, and Timmy Patterson (no relation), among others. The E-Tech founders have hit on what seems like a solid business plan in our carbon-aware present: environmentally responsible products blended with leading-edge technology. "We're not hippies," Patterson says. "We're all about the tech."

E-Tech is just one in a growing cluster of small-market board builders that are popping up in coastal communities in the post–Clark Foam era of experimentation. The variety of eco-friendlier surfcraft is staggering: gorgeous hand-carved works of wooden surfboard art from Grain Surfboards in Maine. The high-flying and eye-wateringly expensive shapes built from reclaimed wood veneer and recycled EPS foam by San Francisco's Danny Hess. Exquisite little handplanes carved from the foam of old busted surfboards by Ed Lewis and Kipp Denslow in north San Diego County. Boards made of mushroom foam. Boards made of sugarcane, hemp, bamboo. Normally, surfboards made from materials that you could eat don't work all that well. But they're out there, they're getting better, and sooner or later they're going to catch up with the polyurethane throwaways we're used to.

As a Firewire team rider, Michel Bourez is no stranger to surfboards constructed with alternative materials. As the brand incorporates more sustainable tech in their craft over the next few years, Bourez may be one of the first to test green boards in World Tour competition. Photo: Frieden
As a Firewire team rider, Michel Bourez is no stranger to surfboards constructed with alternative materials. As the brand incorporates more sustainable tech in their craft over the next few years, Bourez may be one of the first to test green boards in World Tour competition. Photo: Frieden

If the eco-friendly surfboard is going to make a serious dent in the marketplace, it's not going to be driven by the mad geniuses banging around tiny shaping bays. It's going to have to come from those big boys I mentioned earlier—the companies that already sell tens of thousands of boards per year, with stables of world-class team riders hawking ecologically sound equipment. Michael Stewart, an excitable, fast-talking man who lives and surfs in Marin County, California, has made it his life's work to get those big boys building eco-friendly boards as soon as possible.

Stewart was already full steam ahead in his career as a kind of sustainability advisor for multinational corporations when he pirouetted toward greening the surf world a handful of years ago. In 2009, Stewart met Kevin Whilden, a surfer, geologist, and sustainable-manufacturing whiz, after Whilden moved to San Francisco. The two bonded over surfing, talking shop about eco-startups, and a shared fascination with Whilden's biodiesel Volkswagen Jetta. In 2011, Stewart and Whilden formed Sustainable Surf, a nonprofit that sets sustainability standards for everything from ASP World Tour events to surfboards. They also prod a whole bunch of set-in-their-ways surf companies to figure out the logistics of adhering to those standards. But don't be fooled by the crunchy Northern California backstory. Like the E-Tech boys, Stewart and Whilden would never be confused for hippies. Nary a dreadlock nor hemp bracelet among them. They're serious businessmen with white-collar chops.

Firewire recently announced that every surfboard they make will be glassed with Entropy's Super Sap. This means that for the first time, top World Tour pros will be riding eco-friendly boards in heats.

Sustainable Surf was first known as the group responsible for the Waste to Waves program, an initiative that collects used Styrofoam so that it can be recycled into EPS blank material; depending on where you live, you may have seen their collection bins at your local surf shop, often affixed with a photo of a smiling, Zenned-out Rob Machado waving his thanks. But Sustainable Surf's pride and joy—and the biggest impact the organization is likely to have on the surfboard industry—is its groundbreaking ECOBOARD Project. It works like this: A surfboard manufacturer agrees to make some or all of their boards out of sustainable material. Once the board is made, it's stamped with a great big "ECOBOARD" decal, which assures potential customers that the board was built to Sustainable Surf's specifications.

As of now, those specs include a foam blank made from at least 25 percent recycled or bio-based materials, or a regular EPS blank glassed with an epoxy resin of at least 15 percent bio-content. Meeting both standards is even better. (Wooden surfboards, which the ECOBOARD Project also verifies, count if the core wood was harvested sustainably or if it's glassed using bio-based resin.) Those percentages are a moving target, however, because what manufacturers are able to produce with green chemistry is constantly changing.

Marko Foam, for example, currently the only blank manufacturer verified by the ECOBOARD Project, recently had to scale back the recycled-foam content of its blanks from 40 percent to 25. Marko buys recycled EPS beads from outside vendors, and sometimes those vendors can't quite get the density right. Entropy Resins also constantly tinkers with the bio-content proportion of its product. You can buy resin from them that's one-quarter plant material—leaves and sticks not included.

Stewart and Whilden hope that by setting a relatively low threshold for organic or recycled materials, they can entice other blank and resin manufacturers to move under the ECOBOARD umbrella. "We could have made an incredibly stringent set of requirements, so that only people like Danny Hess and Grain Surfboards could follow them," Stewart told me. "But we knew that wasn't where the market was. Our standards are simply one step ahead of the mainstream surfboard market. That way it's not a giant leap for shapers to meet the requirements." Sustainable Surf claims that a board built to the ECOBOARD specs requires 40 percent less carbon dioxide emissions—a byproduct of nearly every part of the surfboard-building process because of the petrochemical nature of surfboard materials—than its conventionally built cousin.

Many surfers just want to ride the types of boards that the Top 34 are on. So as long as competitors like Bede Durbidge and the rest of the World Tour are on unsustainable materials, many will follow suit. Photo: Wood
Many surfers just want to ride the types of boards that the Top 34 are on. So as long as competitors like Bede Durbidge and the rest of the World Tour are on unsustainable materials, many will follow suit. Photo: Wood

For years, boards built with bio-based materials and recycled foam carried with them a stigma of disappointing performance. But the strides being made by Entropy Resins and Marko Foam, among others, now allow for the eco-minded surfer in the lineup to have his cake and eat it too. One of the ECOBOARD Project's newest fans is Alex Gray, a California pro with a love of board-crushing heavy-water breaks, who recently added an ECOBOARD-verified Channel Islands shape to his collection. "This board I'm on now is going on four months and it barely has an indentation on the top," Gray says. "It's as fast, if not faster, than a regular board. The flex is incredible, and the pop above the lip is insane."

Longtime epoxy champion Firewire recently announced that by 2015, every surfboard they make will be glassed with Entropy's Super Sap. That includes their new Timbertek boards, built from sustainably harvested paulownia wood skins wrapped around an EPS core. This means that for the first time, top World Tour pros, in this case Firewire team riders Michel Bourez and Sally Fitzgibbons, will be riding eco-friendly boards in heats. "Without any endorsement at the top levels of pro surfing, most surfers felt that EPS and epoxy were inferior materials from a performance perspective," says Firewire CEO Mark Price. Having world-class pros as paid spokespeople is nothing new for Firewire. From the beginning, it's been relatively easy for the all-epoxy manufacturer to experiment with alternative and eco-friendly surfboard materials. But traditional shapers also have become far more willing to experiment with greener equipment.

Once the sticker price of a board starts nosing over $700, the eco-friendly board choice starts turning painful for the customer who just wants a reliable ride—even if ECOBOARDs are built to last far longer than their polyurethane counterparts.

Channel Islands signed on to the Sustainable Surf program in 2012 and will now happily build any model you'd like as an ECOBOARD—for about $100 extra. "We decided to participate because we believe in the message," says Channel Islands General Manager Scott Anderson. "And for the first time, we saw little to no performance loss when using recycled or bio-based materials." Channel Islands feels so strongly that epoxy-based boards are a big part of the modern surfboard's future that they have recently completed construction of an all-epoxy glass shop on the grounds of their Carpinteria, California, factory. Entropy's bio-resins will be a big part of that operation. This is a big step for Channel Islands. I asked Al Merrick about why so many big-time board makers are notoriously reluctant to try new technologies. "Changing materials introduces another variable in the board's performance," Merrick said. "When making boards for top surfers, being able to make that magic board over and over is critical."

Matt Biolos of …Lost Surfboards has also begun building ECOBOARDs for his customers and has long been willing to experiment with alternative materials. "I like making cool stuff with creative people," Biolos said when I asked about his involvement in building ECOBOARDs. "The guys at E-Tech [Patterson and Harris handle the glassing for …Lost's ECOBOARDs] are as passionate about building surfboards as anyone I know, and they are really pushing the envelope of what can be done with these materials."

And there are plenty more top-tier shapers involved in the ECOBOARD Project. Cole Simler, Stretch, Hobie, and Jon Wegener, among others, have all made it possible for interested customers to order boards that adhere to the ECOBOARD environmental standards.

For pro surfers like Evan Geiselman, surfboard performance has historically far outweighed environmental impact. But as eco-friendly materials improve, going green is becoming less of a compromise. Photo: Lugo
For pro surfers like Evan Geiselman, surfboard performance has historically far outweighed environmental impact. But as eco-friendly materials improve, going green is becoming less of a compromise. Photo: Lugo

Even with such world-class shapers signing on to sell eco-friendly boards, the market remains largely unaffected. Channel Islands and …Lost each produce only about two percent of their total board sales as ECOBOARDs. Firewire has sold upward of 10,000 ECOBOARDs over the past couple of years, but that's just a sliver of worldwide surfboard sales, estimated at somewhere near 400,000 boards annually. Surftech, often cited as the biggest surfboard company on the planet, has yet to make a serious venture into the sustainable-materials business. "We're certainly eager to do more," says Surftech Marketing Director Duke Brouwer. "Entropy Resins are definitely on our radar." But as of now, incorporating more Earth-friendly technology for the manufacturing giant remains strictly a future proposition.

What's more, the increased labor and materials costs of EPS-based ECOBOARDs remain a significant hurdle for customers and shapers alike. A surf shop might spend $500 on each shiny new Channel Islands model in their racks, then sell it for $650. An epoxy board is going to bump that cost up even more. Once the sticker price of a board starts nosing over $700, the eco-friendly board choice starts turning painful for the customer who just wants a reliable ride—even if ECOBOARDs are built to last far longer than their polyurethane counterparts.

"The bottom line is it's a business," Biolos says. "It doesn't make sense for a retailer to invest in a slower-selling, lower-margin product on their valuable floor space." And EPS boards will likely remain more expensive than polyurethane boards for years. Epoxy resins are made at lower volumes than polyester resins—vastly lower in the case of bio-resins—and EPS surfboards take much longer to make. Unless the costs of polyurethane foam and polyester resins increase, which could certainly happen with fluctuations in petrochemicals prices, those boards will remain the cheaper option.

And people always like cheap. "Polyurethane boards don't perform better; the boards just cost less," says Patterson. "Plus, people don't want to stray away from what they're used to."

Firewire's Price agreed: "In the hierarchy of surfboard purchasing decisions, environmental consideration falls below shape, brand, and cost." Nonetheless, Price is optimistic about the future of eco-friendly boards. "I think that we're only at the start of a revolution in new materials and construction methods. When we look back in the near future, we'll probably wonder why it took so long."