Nick Carroll: Is There Such a Thing as a Sustainable Surfboard?
COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL
Is it just bullshit or what? Nick goes to the Boardroom show in California to find out.
It’s impossible to know the full extent of modern surfing’s impact on the world. Millions of people have had something extraordinary in their lives. It’s possibly screwed up their job prospects, but hell, who cares.
At the same time, ever since polyurethane foam and resin laminates happened in the early 1960s, many many millions of surfboards have been made.
How many of those are being ridden today? 5%? Less?
The rest, 95%+ of all the boards ever made, are still with us: buried in landfills, jammed under houses, sitting in second hand board racks and ding repairers’ back rooms, indestructibly plastic, taking up some kind of space, somewhere.
This puts surfboards in the middle of a grand argument that’s been fizzing away in global consumer manufacturing for over 30 years, between the relative merits of high product turnover – a thing once known as “planned obsolescence” – and a thing that sounds great in theory, but very few people seem to grasp in practice. A thing called “sustainability”.
The Boardroom show is the biggest board-focussed show in the world. It is held in a huge barn-like building at Del Mar Fairgrounds north of San Diego. It runs for two days, features a live shaping showdown, and a lot of really excellent surfboards. The roof of the building is metal and the noise is unbelievable. It’s super fun!
I wanted to attend this year partly because surfboards feel to me now like the last remaining cool things in surfing, or the last things anyone would call cool. They challenge the eye, they can scare you just by the suggestion of the waves they might ride, and if you don’t surf, you have no hope of understanding ‘em.
This alone would make Boardroom worth any surfer’s time. But I was also puzzled by an idea that pervaded the show, thanks to its 2019 partner organisation, a non-profit company called Sustainable Surf Co.
Co-founded several years ago by Kevin Whilden and Mike Stewart, Sustainable Surf Co specialises in assessing surfboard makers on request for their”eco”-ness, then charging them a dollar a board for the privilege of applying a decal, which tells the customers they’re buying an Eco-board.
But what is “sustainability”? And how can it be applied to surfboards?
Among the 70 or so exhibitors, there seemed as many different ideas about “sustainable” as there were exhibitors. Some appeared to be just naturally going there. 101 Fin Company displayed a wide range of fins made from bamboo under a thin glass and resin laminate. They were not just made largely from a renewable resource, they were beautiful things — consumer-friendly, however you looked at them.
Ry Harris’s company Earth Tech has been committed to cleaner surfboards for many years. He was one of the first to use Entropy epoxy resins, a bio-sourced resin which sets without the need for catalysing. (“The first batch was terrible!” he says. “Turned yellow.”) Ry’s idea of sustainability is focussed on recycling waste, using a high powered plastic shredder to grind up all the excess from his glassing program, and blending the result with sanding dust to make … stuff. Beer coasters, tiles, anything. For a while he even had a returns policy where he would credit people for boards they’d bring back broken, then find ways to recycle the bits and pieces.
Just up the aisle was Eden Saul of Dead Kooks, whose stand showcased his thoroughly finished longboards. Eden’s idea of sustainability was simple: longevity. If a board is good and it lasts, you don’t need a whole lot of boards. “I hear about the bio resins and the algae foam and all that,” he told us. “But the resin sets slow and the blanks shrink, where I can get a really good blank, cut it carefully, glass it with high quality resins and Silmar glass and that board will still be here in 40 years.”
A lot of the other crew I talked with made general noises about it, but seemed a bit eye-rolly on the subject. Only later did I think: they’re experts. They hate people telling them what to do. “It’s kind of a joke,” one said. “It’s all plastic. It’s always been plastic. You can’t recycle ’em. The best you can do is make them so they last longer.”
Indeed, if you look up the actual meaning of “sustainability”, making something last longer is well up the list.
But it sits a bit awkwardly with surfboard making’s other priority, the one that lines up with the other side of the grand argument: Making the old board obsolete. I could see this all around me at Boardroom: new models, ones you haven’t seen yet, ones designed to cause you to forget the board you already own and rush out and buy the new one.
Firewire is the company most associated with the idea of sustainability. They are fully accredited by Sustainable Surf Co, and their boards carry the “eco-board” sticker produced by the company. Like Earth Tech, they recycle waste, making it into hexagonal paving tiles. FW’s Chuy Reyna showed me one; it looked like a block of hazelnut/vanilla ice cream. “They’re all over Surf Ranch,” Chuy told me.
They also had one of the sharpest range of new models at the show. I saw the new Dan Mann designed FRK round pintail, a slippery little thing with all the bits in the right places, and my consumption-coached Western surfer mind wigged out. Instantly I wanted a FRK myself.
Can you be sustainable and obsoletist at the same time? Be virtuous and sell 10,000 boards? Mark Price, who runs FW, is long past bullshitting about the ecological purity of their boards. “Look, they are all plastic,” he said, “they end up in landfill, all that. All we want to make sure of is that we make them in as non-toxic a way as we can.”
But then he outlined a much larger vision of sustainability — one including everything from FW’s sizeable contributions to Surfrider Foundation, SurfAid, and other charitable causes, to what he expects in the future. “It can’t go on, the consumption. We have to get ready for the day when the customer expects us to be doing something about this stuff. They will, and when they do, if you don’t have something to say for yourself, you’ll have trouble.”
Mike from Grain Surfboards won’t have to worry about that. He makes hollow frame boards from quarter inch Maine cedar, laminated with a single layer of 4 or 2oz cloth and Entropy resin. (Entropy’s not terrible anymore.) Each board takes around 50 hours to make, and every off-cut is recycled.
That made Mike about the most actually sustainable boardmaker at the show, yet he hadn’t been motivated by that; he and his business partner just love working with wood. He doesn’t even have an eco-board sticker. When I mentioned the Sustainable Surf Co’s program, he smiled a bit. “We’ve had discussions,” he said. “But when what you make is up HERE, and their standard is down THERE, what’s the point.”
BEST IN SHOW
There was a LOT. Here’s a coupla things I thought were quietly killer:
The FinJak. This is a small clip-on device that replaces the single fin box screw and plate, which is one of the most annoying things about a singly. FinJak just slips in to the fin box slot and snaps on to the fin. You can quickly and easily pop a fin in and out of a box, even shift it up and down during a surf. It’s a tiny thing but so stupidly easy and sensible, you feel like it should have been invented 30 years ago.
101 Fins. I mentioned them above. Beautiful simple fins. The range includes fins fit for FCS, Futures, boxes, and glass-ons. Flex is stiff but grades out a bit toward the tip like good fins.
Allan Gibbons six-channel widowmaker pintail. This was in the for-real Best In Show board rack. It was surrounded by far more decorated boards but honestly, they looked like painted ponies next to a thoroughbred. Allan is an ex CI backbone shaper from Santa Barbara and man he knows his lines.
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