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Surfing and Sustainability

“Surfers are the natural guardians and spokespersons of the sea… We base our lives around it. Surfers must be among the first to lead by example to create the critical mass of change that will inspire others to look after the ocean- our playground.” Dan Ross, professional surfer. As Ross so eloquently states, a surfers livelihood depends on the health of the ocean and the surfers are the ones to begin that change. Through many nongovernmental organizations (NGO), spokespersons and new ideas, surfers are helping their own industry to become more sustainable.

Sustainable Surf

As the environmentalist movement has continued to grow over the years, many parts of the surfing world are looking to see how they can take the idea of sustainability and the green movement farther. “There have been grassroots efforts (like Surfers Environmental Alliance, Surfrider Foundation, etc) that educate and stimulate surfers to become involved in environmental issues. These groups focus on issues like beach sewage and waste management, beach access, and offshore oil drilling to name a few (Surfers Environmental Alliance, 2010)” (Power, 2).

Many of these organizations run on the founders who are surfers and hope to have a sustainable ocean and sustainable sport. Sustainability can be found by the intersection of Ecology, Society and Economy. The “triple bottom line is a balanced triangle of economic prosperity, environmental quality and social well-being” (Suggett and Goodsir, 2002). The concise definition may be: a way of living that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs” (Brundtland Commissions, In Barron & Gauntlet, 2002.)

When you first think of surfing, most people would imagine a group of hap hazzard hippie like people, those that have long hair, haven’t showered in days and are in tune with nature. That can be true to some extent, but the interesting truth is that surfing, though it does or can connect one with nature, is not very thoughtful of nature when it comes to the production of surfing materials.

Surfboards Environmental Impacts:

The construction, use and disposal should minimize or avoid pollution overall, use non-renewable resources and serve longer than one run in with a giant or freak wave.

When a surfer looks into buying a board, they need to remember three important factors if they want to ensure sustainability:

“1) Locality: where do the materials to shape the surfboard come from? Where is it shaped, and to where is it shipped? Gas miles play a pivotal factor in the surfing industry’s footprint, so a board that is locally crafted is best.

2) Materials: What is the environmental impact of the materials each board is made of? Is it Durable? Does it biodegrade?

3) Process: Are the boards shaped in a way that minimizes waste and energy use? Is it mass-produced or shaped by hand? Do any materials get recycled or reused?” (Powers, 21).

When it comes to how a board should ride, this is extremely important to surfers, especially those that are looking to get sponsorships from companies, that their board rides well and they are able to handle it. “Surfers are not going to sacrifice the performance of a light board for being green,” (Biolos, in Woody, 2009). This is an important thought when it comes to buying a board. Even if one is the most green option there is, does not ride well or will not work for you, you are almost better off without a board. It is extremely important for surfers to have the proper equipment while they are in the water, without it there is a possibility of being harmed if they are unprepared.

Each surfboard is made with relatively the same ingredientes: a raw blank (oftentimes untreated wood or foam), fiberglass cloth and a resin hardener (Power, 23, Sullivan, 2007). The process of making not only the blank but also the resin and fiberglass is a mixture of potentially deadly chemicals that when mixed incorrectly can have terrible side effects. Some of the chemicals are:

  • Polyether polyol

  • Polyester polyol

  • Toluene Dissocyanate (TDI)

  • Maelic Anhyride

  • Phthalic Anahydride

  • Ethylene Glycol

  • Styrene Monomer

  • Methyl Ethyl Ketone Peroxide

With all of these deadly chemicals that are used to make a board buoyant, strong and shaped into the proper form, it seems uncertain as to how a board could be made without such an effect on the environment.

Wetsuits Environmental Impacts

The environmental impacts of wetsuits are much the same as surfboards. Wetsuits are primarily made of polycholoroprene or the finished product being called neoprene which can be made one of two ways:

  1. Butadiene is a petrol-product that is used to create polychloroprene beads of resin by a series of reacting chloroprene monomers in a petrochemical plant, eventually creating pure carbon that is combusted through a controlled heating process. This production creates extensive carbon emissions and is dependent on non-renewable fossil fuels. (Power, 24, Copeland, 2008).

  2. Polychloroprene involves mining limestone (calcium carbonate). The resulted material is called geoprene. Limestone is also nonrewable just like petrol; limestone is also crushed and heated like petrol. The resulting material is acetylene. This is the biggest environmental impact of the wetsuit. (Powers 24, Copeland, 2008).

  3. The final step in making the wetsuit includes “a heavy use of toxic adhesives for lamination. These solvents evaporate during manufacturing, both polluting the environment and create a health and safety risk to workers” (Powers 24, Hilary, 2010.)

As for the most sustainable version of a wetsuit, Patagonia geoprene suit appears to be the best. The design reduces the need for rubber resources by lining the suit with recycled polyester and chlorine free wool (Power, 24,Hilary, 2010). Body Glove’s “Eco” and “Eco 2” suit is their version of an environmentally friendly suit. It is made with two main materials, Bio Stretch material and Eco-Flex exterior are “non petroleum based and 100% environmentally friendly” (Body Glove). The “Eco 2” suit is now made with water based inks, the laminates are made of corn and it is recyclable. (Body Glove).

The Greener Options

Currently there are no real green boards available for surfers. “The most sustainable option that is available to the majority of surfers is a used surfboard” (Powers, 53, Schulz). This is because by using a ‘used board’ in good condition allows for no extra energy or materials to be used for the sake of one more surfer. There would also be less gas milage associated with a used board, even if it had been made in Asia and sent to another country, and went on tour; it is only ever shipped once from the company that creates it. “The more new boards are produced, the more ozone is depleted, toxins released, and junk ends up in landfills” (Power, 54). To ensure that a board can be used again, or even sold as a used board, it is important to take proper care of it. This includes taking the board out of direct sunlight when not in the water and fixing dings to the fiberglass to ensure that the life is long. If a surfer is unable to buy a used board, a surfer should look into buying a board that was made locally. This allows for the gas miles to stay low, creating a low impact and also supporting the local economy.

When it comes to a sustainable wetsuit, “limestone suits may very well be the most environmentally friendly because they use less oil” (Power, 56). Since the limestone wetsuit is not the most sustainable product, companies that are making suits should look into ways to minimize waste and increase their overall energy efficiency. Using old suits as scraps for furniture or donating it to a recycling program could go a long way. Even if “companies invest in renewable energy” it would help their carbon footprint (Powers, 56). Another easy way to become a sustainable company would be for surf shops to “try to get suits made near where the shops is located” this cuts down on gas mileage (Powers, 56).


In Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, she observes how pollution begins and ends in the water sources. “By a strange paradox, most of the earth’s abundant water is not usable for agriculture, industry or human consumption because of its heavy load of sea salts, and so most of the world’s population is either experiencing or is threatened with critical shortages.” (Carson, 39).

Just as Carson claims the “strange paradox” of water, it is a strange paradox on how surfers who spend most of their time in the water use such energy and chemicals that are not friends of the environment. Many of the surfing NGOs are currently working towards creating a sustainable environment around the beaches that they love so dearly. SurfRider is currently working on eliminating all of the plastic pollution from beaches. During the November 2016 election, California was able to vote to have a charge on all plastic bags at stores and SurfRider was one of the main negotiators in this new law (SurfRider). SurfRider even has ten easy steps on their website for how to “Rise Above Plastic.” Another NGO that is helping with plastic removal is the The Take3 Movement that began in Sydney, Australia in 2009 as a way to join in on the clean environment initiative. The Movement simply asks that each time you go to the beach (or simply in the great outdoors), you pick up three pieces of garbage, mainly plastic is what people will find, and dispose of it correctly (Take 3).

Unfortunately many people do not realize that their actions can harm the environment. Even though there are many NGOs that have worked towards sustaining the pristine beauty of our natural landscapes, humans still intervene and change it, which is not always in the best interest of sustainability. With the idea of greener options for the surf industry, it would cut down drastically on the pollution that they emit; whether it simply be buying local or repurposing wetsuits. Though this would not really reduce the amount of beach waste like the Take3Movement is working on, it would reduce the overall negative effects on the environment.


Travel is not only essential for life but essential for the authentic lifestyle of surfers. It is said that most surfers, who want to see every wave break, will travel to Hawaii, Indonesia, Australia, South Africa, Chile, France, and California at least once in their lifetimes. Each surfer in the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) accounts for “more than 24 tons of CO2 over the course of a season” per surfer (Powers, Cornuelle, 2009, p.74). Usually, there are the top 22 world surfers who compete with the ASP on the world tour. Each one of these 22 surfers has to plant a total of “575 evergreen trees per year to offset their carbon emissions” (Powers, Cornuelle, 2009, p.74).

Due to the extensive travel, most surf NGOs help settle the difference that surfers are not able to make up when it comes to offsetting their carbon emissions. Kyle Theirman, founder and host of Surfing For Change, began his NGO during his travels when he realized just how much eco destruction there is around the world. He encompasses his travels with highlighting different projects that are usually quite controversial. He uses his platform as a surfer and traveler to expose projects like GMO pollution, trash tubes in Indonesia, nuclear plants, surf tourism, shopping locally and pollution found in beaches (SurfingForChange).

The ocean holds much to be desired and experienced from surfers to children who have lived landlocked for most of their life. It is a place where people can find themselves, discover new dreams, and experience life in a new way.

I don’t know if my dreams of writing for a surfing magazine will ever come true, I hope that they will. But if not, I am content with just continuing to seek out the water where ever I am; I hope that means more travel in the long run.

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