Sustainable Surfing and its Ethical Conundrums by Sophie Hellyer

29 . 11 . 18

As I walk along the litter-laden coastline of my local beach break clutching a beaten-up old surfboard held together largely with duct tape and good luck, I’m resigned to the notion that it’s probably time for a new board. 

However, I’ve been navigating the moral maze of being a surfer and environmentalist for several years now, and it turns out being both at the same time is not that easy. The problem is that, although surfing itself doesn’t damage the environment, our common practices as surfers can have a huge carbon footprint and consumption is probably the biggest enemy to our oceans: buying a new board leaves me facing an environmental conflict. So I find myself asking: can we even get in the ocean without killing it? 

Most modern surfboards are made from a slab of polystyrene or polyurethane, slathered in layers of (mostly) toxic resin, and I’m lost in a tsunami of misinformation as many of the brands now manufacturing ‘eco’ boards from materials such as majority plant based resin and part recycled cores still ship their raw materials and finished materials backwards and forwards across the globe. What’s more, traditional neoprene wetsuits are non biodegradable and made from crude oil; our leashes are normally destined to landfill once they snap; the travel involved in chasing waves leads to the emissions of C02 and C02e (other greenhouse gases) whether it be a short jaunt down to the local beach or on an international flight to Bali; even our board wax can be toxic and wrapped in plastic that could well end up blowing into the sea and being consumed by marine life. 

Surfing the 5’6″ Seadar wooden mini Simmons surfboard in the Maldives, wearing a bikini made from recycled and recyclable plastic.  Photo by Matt Smith. 

The Global Strategic Business Report for Surfing produced by The Global Industry Analysts, Inc shows there is a groundswell of surfers keen to be more environmentally conscious, with trends showing the focus shifting toward eco-friendly and sustainable alternatives to traditional surfboards, and Instagram is home to a community of surfers who are mobilising to protect the environment. The hashtag #2MinuteBeachClean has garnered more than 89,000 photo tags of people doing their bit to collect plastic debris from the coast on instagram alone, and Surfers Against Sewage’s #PlasticFreeCommunites have now had 395 different communities sign up to their plastic free manifesto. Yet for many people, sustainability is still seen as a distant luxury because of its price tag, and until corporations and retailers can make new tech more affordable, I fear it will remain a desirable but often commercially unpopular option with the masses.

Yulex, for example, is a 100% plant based specialty natural rubber replacing the need for traditional petroleum-based toxic materials.

Down the line on the 7’2″ Coaster in Cornwall.

Yulex have partnered with global brands such as Patagonia to create Fair Trade Certified and neoprene-free wetsuits alongside other innovative surf-wear. It’s a laudable progress but with a hooded winter suit costing £450 they are among some of the most expensive suits available on the market, with prices for suits made by other brands that use traditional neoprene starting at £215. On a personal note, I was lucky last year when I found a Patagonia wetsuit made from Yulex in the outlet store at a fraction of the retail price, but I can’t deny how reluctant I was to pay over £1,000 for an eco-SUP made from renewable flax-fibre cloth, bio plant resin, recyclable EPS foam and sustainable cork. £1,000 is a lot of money to many people, not just me, particularly when there are cheaper alternatives on the market. Was it my ego that splashed out or my conscience?

I also felt smug when, while living in Ireland, I found out about Irish Ferries’ ‘Sail and Rail’ deal, which takes you to anywhere in the UK for only €60, and then almost choked on my porridge when my housemate flew over for £10 and arrived at her destination 12 hours faster – convenience and price significantly trumped my green-minded travel.

Lending a hand and learning more about where our food comes from at Moyhill Community Farm, Ireland.  Photo by Nick Pumphrey.

Walking the walk and incorporating sustainability into every aspect of my surfing life has been a near impossible task, and I am well aware that trying to live this considered existence whilst being in a position of influence with my online life sets me up for constant scrutiny. I still drive a van, I still occasionally fly, and my surfboard has a pink glitter resin which I’ve discovered is made from plastic. Am I a hypocrite for calling myself an environmentalist? I’m certainly far from flawless. I believe there must be a balance somewhere in these murky waters between conscience and convenience.

Luckily there are an increasing number of environmentally conscious options that don’t require us to dig deep into our pockets. Revolwe makes leashes using recycled PET-bottles and Yulex’s 100% plant-based alternative to neoprene; Smart Leash Co offer replacement parts that are interchangeable with most major brands so you don’t need to buy a whole new leash or throw your old one into landfill. Elsewhere, We Are Others make organic surf wax in a reusable metal tin from community collected tree resin, thereby sparing us from tossing traditional plastic wrappers in the trash. And, in a bid to close the waste loop, Five Oceans make surfboard fins from post-consumer plastic waste from Indonesia. These may be small items but this change alone would lead to a big ecological footprint if it stopped people from forever buying the traditional toxic and non-recycled or recyclable offerings.

A wooden surfboard and a Solidwool fin.

The thing is, I believe that being part of the solution doesn’t mean having to be perfect; we needn’t endlessly beat ourselves up for our failings. Even if we don’t own any eco-friendly gear, we can choose considered solutions when pursuing our sport such using car pools to share a ride to the coast, or picking up some plastic from the beach for recycling on our way home. It’s easy to leave the environment and our oceans a little less damaged when you start to think about it.

Of course, such small, considerate gestures won’t change the world overnight. But by using our awareness to foster change on a personal level, and using our collective consumer-power to quicken the pace of progress in the surf industry, we can stimulate change in the distance just as swell builds progressively from far out at sea. Ultimately our values are consequential.

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