As a surfer, how can you make better choices when buying your next surfboard? There are many options to choose from, often touted as more “eco-friendly” variants. So how do you know which is actually better for the ocean?
The ECOBOARD Project started in 2012 with the goal of helping surfers make better board-buying choices. Officially endorsed by SIMA in 2013 as the go-to standard for board-builders and surfers alike, the program also helps to support board builders to make the shift to more sustainable materials and technologies.
Since 2012, over 130,000 surfboards, SUPs, windsurf boards and kite boards have been made according to the ECOBOARD Project Benchmark, and bear the Verified ECOBOARD™ mark. There are now ECOBOARD builders on every continent – with more than 100 brands making ECOBOARDS globally.
So choosing a more ocean-friendly surfboard can be as easy as looking for the Verified ECOBOARD mark. But what if you want you want to go further? One of the cool aspects of surfboards is that so many are custom made. You can specify many options that can further reduce the ocean impact of your board.
This ECOBOARD Resource Guide explores the various options for making a more “ocean-friendly” board. It is based on the knowledge and experience of the 100+ board builders that have joined the ECOBOARD Project since 2012. There have been many improvements in materials and techniques since the early days of 2012, and Sustainable Surf is constantly inspired by where our board-building partners are going – watch this space…
The ECOBOARD Resource Guide is also based on our ECOBOARD Lifecycle Study, conducted in partnership with Firewire Surfboards, Channel Islands Surfboards, and Pure Strategies. This study uses scientific analysis of the impact of each stage of surfboard manufacturing and transportation to your local surfshop. All of the recommendations of the ECOBOARD Project are based on this Lifecycle Study – it’s all about the facts!
Each material discussed below is listed in order of carbon footprint impact, based on our Lifecycle Study. The examples described are evolving, as to is this list. Please reach out with any info you have.
Resin – 40% of the carbon footprint of a board
The best way to reduce the impact of resin itself is to switch to a plant-based resin. Most surfboard resins are highly processed petrochemicals with a significant carbon footprint. By displacing some of this petroleum with plant-derived elements, the carbon footprint can be reduced.
There are currently twelve ECOBOARD Qualified plant-based epoxy resins available in the market, that have gone through our environmental benefits testing procedure. See our Qualified Materials page for a complete listing of qualified plant-based resins.
Based on data provided by Entropy Resins, which is the first plant-based epoxy resin manufacturer to complete their own Lifecycle Study, the use of Entropy bio-resin can reduce the carbon footprint of a finished board by 20%.
Foam Core – ~10% of the carbon footprint of a board
Like resin, most foam cores (“blanks”) are made from highly processed petrochemicals, and thus have a high carbon footprint. Using recycled or plant-based content can reduce the carbon footprint of the blank. Currently, only Marko Foam 25% recycled EPS Envirofoam blanks have been approved as Qualified Materials. Arctic Foam is currently developing an algae-based polyurethane blank. Testing is yet to be completed regarding the bio-content of this material.
Based on data provided by Marko Foam, Pure Strategies has concluded that Marko Envirofoam EPS reduces the carbon footprint of a finished board by nearly 10%.
Fiberglass – 2% of the carbon footprint of a board
Fiber cloth as used in a typical surfboard has a very small contribution to the footprint of a surfboard. Also, it seems that even the most innovative board builders still need a small amount of fiberglass to produce a high-quality finish on the board. So we do not currently require alternatives to fiberglass in our ECOBOARD Benchmark. However we certainly encourage people to find better options. Using organic, renewable materials to displace as much fiberglass as possible is a great idea and follows the spirit of making the most sustainable board.
There are many alternatives to fiberglass that can make small, yet meaningful reductions to the carbon footprint of a surfboard and support the development of renewable board-building materials. Here are some of the alternatives we are starting to see more and more of:
- Flax cloth – Flax can be woven in a special manner that can be used as a primary lamination layer. According to Ryan Harris of Earth Technologies, flax has good strength and flex dampening properties that works great when combined with EPS foam. However a thin cap sheet of fiberglass is still required to provide a smooth finished surface. Also, Ryan suggests that flax can soak up resin, so it should be vacuum bagged to reduce weight.
- Hemp cloth – Hemp cloth is another viable alternative for fiberglass as a primary lamination layer. Although it an also soak up resin and should be vacuum bagged to keep weight down.
- Basalt fiber – Basalt derived cloth is a relatively new product that has similar characteristics as carbon fiber. The basalt fiber industry claims that it has a lower carbon footprint than fiberglass; we have not seen an independent study to confirm this. However basalt fiber almost certainly has a lower footprint than carbon fiber, so this is a good alternative for carbon fiber.
- Cork – Cork is most often used on the deck. If left uncovered by glass/resin, it may not need a coat of wax to provide traction. It also adds a dampening effect on flex, which works well with EPS. Cork is relatively heavy, so again, it works best with lighter EPS foam.
Carbon Fiber – Carbon fiber is very energy intensive in production, so it has a significantly higher footprint than fiberglass.
Wood or bamboo as a veneer
Many manufacturers are using bamboo or wood veneers to add strength and beauty to a board. These veneers often require a fiberglass cap sheet and thus do not reduce the carbon footprint of a board, although they will increase the durability and lifetime of a board. Veneers also require vacuum bagging, which requires additional plastic material but may reduce overall resin usage.
Wood as a structural component
Nothing matches the beauty and feeling of a wooden surfboard. Some manufacturers use a solid lightweight wood such as balsa, while others create an engineered construction that is either hollow or foam-filled. Often there is still a resin and fiberglass layer for strength and durability, however some are built as “resin-less” boards. These construction methods result in a significant reduction in the amount of foam and/or resin and fiberglass, and thus a significant reduction in the carbon footprint of a board.
Sustainable Surf requires board builders that use wood (timber) in their surfboards to provide evidence that this material is being sustainably sourced. Many ECOBOARD builders are using reclaimed wood and/or timber from sustainably managed forests.
More and more manufacturers are using vacuum bagging in a standard lamination to increase strength and reduce weight. This method can reduce overall resin usage by 15-20%, which will reduce the carbon footprint of a board. However plastic bags are used in the process, so there is some plastic waste produced.
Perhaps the most surprising result from our Lifecycle Study was that waste produced during board building is a very large component of a surfboard’s footprint. In a standard “poly/PU” construction, a 6.0 lb shortboard produces an additional 10 lbs of waste material during the shaping and glassing process. The numbers are only slightly better for an EPS/epoxy board.
This section will look at ways to reduce waste in manufacturing. Board Builders, take note. Surfers, you might want to ask your shaper what they do to reduce waste.
Resin waste – 32% of the total carbon footprint of a surfboard
Our study found that polyester resin is relatively cheap compared to the labor needed to laminate a board. Consequently, poly resin is often spread on a board with limited attempt to capture drips. Our study found that 80% of poly resin can go to waste! Even epoxy resin, which is more expensive and thus more carefully used, produced a 50% waste ratio.
Ways to reduce resin waste:
- Drip trays – a carefully constructed and maintained drip tray underneath the edges of a board can be very effective at reducing resin waste. It takes more time, but it can reduce overall resin usage substantially.
- Connora Re-Rez – It’s not commercially available yet, but Re-Rez is a plant-based epoxy resin that can be recycled into a thermoplastic. Connora will be able to accept used resin buckets and drip trays to reclaim all resin waste. This is an exciting development to reduce resin waste in manufacturing, and has achieved Gold Level status in the Qualified Materials page.
- Upcycling – Earth Technologies and Flama Surf use excess resin from boards, to laminate handplanes and alaias. This also upcycles waste from foam and fiberglass. Surfboards From Mars use resin waste to make fins and Stretch Surfboards uses resin waste to make art sold at local markets.
Foam waste – 9% of the total carbon footprint of a surfboard
Our Lifecycle Study found that about 40-50% of a foam blank is removed during the shaping process. This material is typically captured by the dust collection system and co-mingled with sanding dust and other waste streams. This waste often goes straight to the landfill, despite several companies trying to form a business using this waste as a filler in asphalt and other schemes.
Solutions to foam waste:
- EPS dust recycling – Marko operates an EPS densifier on the factory floor. All foam waste from CNC shaping at their factory is densified and recycled into the feedstock for Marko’s Envirofoam blanks. This is a great pathway to reduce foam waste from shaping.
- Wooden structure – A board made from a wooden construction will either eliminate foam usage altogether, or allow the use of low density foam. Either method eliminates foam waste signficantly.
- Molded construction – Some surfboards and many SUPs are made using a mold. These molded boards significantly reduce or mitigate foam waste, as the foam blank is made in the mold within close tolerances of the final shape.
- Meal worm composting – More on this soon… we are working with permaculture experts, Living Earth Systems, to recycle foam dust using meal worms. This is a very cool way to convert plastic directly into compost on a small scale.
Other waste solutions
- Wood Surf Co makes beautiful wooden surfboards in Australia. Wood waste is burned in a thermo-electric generator, that produces electricity for use on-site.
Electricity – 31% of the total carbon footprint of a board
Our Lifecycle Study showed that the electricity used to shape and laminate a board is actually quite high. This study was conducted at large factories with multiple CNC machines and sophisticated dust collection systems. This affords many opportunities to save electricity usage, which saves a lot of money. It also saves the carbon footprint emissions from building a surfboard, which can be significantly.
For board builders, most electric utilities have free commercial energy audit programs and financial rebates for many energy saving solutions. Given the thin margins of surfboard production, there is no board-builder that should ignore energy efficiency as a way to save money.
Solutions to reduce energy consumption:
- Get an energy audit – Most likely, your electric utility offers a free energy efficiency audit. You just have to call them. So do it now, and get an expert to visit your shop and make it easy to start saving money on electricity. There are two main areas of energy efficiency for most surfboard factories:
- Energy efficient lighting – Older lighting uses a large amount of energy. Replacing it with new efficient lighting often has a payback period less than one year, and there are frequently cash-back rebates available from the local electric utility. Pure Glass in Costa Mesa had their local utility do an energy audit and then installed efficient T-5 flourescent lighting.
- Air compressor maintenance – Air compressor systems uses a lot of energy if they are poorly maintained. Pure Glass uses shut-off valves to focus their air compressor on areas of the shop that are being used, and all lines are shut off during non-working hours. This is very smart, since most shops completely ignore their air compressor.
- Solar Photovoltaic – The ultimate renewable energy, Solar PV systems can have payback periods of 3-5 years, and then make considerable money in energy savings in future years. The downside is that a shop needs to own its building, or else installing solar PV can be complicated.
Packaging and Transportation
The Lifecycle Study clearly shows that transportation is a small percentage of the overall carbon footprint. It doesn’t matter if the board is transported via truck, train, or container ship. The transportation footprint is between 2-3% of the board’s total carbon footprint. As long as air-travel is not involved.
Packaging for shipping is the hidden challenge of building sustainable boards. There are no issues if customer and shaper are in the same location. However as soon as the board needs to be shipped, it gets challenging because boards are relatively large and fragile.
Solutions for better packaging:
- BAST Packaging – BAST uses molded cardboard rail protectors that are very effective at protecting a board in transit. As a bonus, this packaging material can be saved by the end-consumer and used to protect their board on future surf trips.
- Efficient boxing – Channel Islands Surfboards has perfected a method to put shortboards into a box without needed any bubble wrap. Boxes are custom made super strong, and boards are held together as a unit with a little bit of shrink wrap.
- Reuse – Almost every board builder we speak with reuses incoming packaging to package boards ready for shipping. This saves on materials as well as costs. Items like cardboard, foam and bubblewrap can be reused several times and it is great to see this as standard practice throughout the surfboard industry.
- Casava Root bags – Avani makes a plastic made from Casava root in Indonesia. This bag very quickly composts or dissolves in water. No more plastic waste or pollution from Avani’s bags. We’re currently working to try and move several large board builders towards this plastic-free alternative.
Worker safety is an important issues because board building uses hazardous materials.
Solutions for worker safety:
- UV catalyst for polyester resin – Channel Islands estimates that they use 75% less styrene catalyst with UV-cured resin.
Styrene is a federally listed carcinogen.
- Smart fume control – Channel Islands also has floor-mounted fume vents in their glassing room, so workers don’t need gas masks to use polyester resin. The effectiveness of this is tested regularly. They also use strobic fans to mix VOCs with ambient air and inject 1000′ into the atmosphere. Most factories just vent directly above the roof.
- Skin protection for epoxy resin – All ECOBOARD Qualified plant-based epoxy resins have low-VOCs, so fume control is not an issue. However workers must take care to avoid skin contact with any epoxy resin to avoid an allergic sensitization.
- Dust capture for epoxy resin – Fine sanding dust from epoxy resin can be especially sensitizing, so great dust capture equipment during sanding of epoxy is important.
Carbon footprint mitigation
The Starboard Group (including Starboard SUP and Airush Kiteboarding) has measured their total carbon footprint and purchased carbon offsets to go “carbon neutral”. Starboard has even gone one step further to develop their own carbon offset project using mangrove forest restoration techniques in Myanmar.
Similarly, FlamaSurf has conducted a carbon footprint of their operations to identify opportunities to reduce energy use and carbon footprint.