Guide to “ECOBOARD” surfboards
NEXT GENERATION SURFBOARD MATERIALS
Can ‘going green’ actually produce a modern high performance surfboard? It turns out that the answer is ‘yes’, because products like recycled foam blanks and bio-resin epoxy laminates have equivalent strength, durability and superior flex properties. Surfers and Shapers are giving extremely positive reports of how boards surf (and shape) using these materials.
But is it necessary to worry about the environmental impact of surfboard? The short answer is “yes”, because oceans and the waves we love are under severe threat from human impact on the environment. These threats, and what you can do about them in your own life, are detailed in the Eco Education section of our site.
Measuring the environmental impact of a surfboard is the starting point, because measurement allows us to make the most effective decisions (and not get stuck at the ‘worry phase’). For starters – environmental impacts from surfboards & surfboard production can be broken down into two basic categories: their CO2 footprint (which contributes to the negative impacts from global Climate Change), and the toxicity level of the materials used to make them (which can pollute out water, air and soil, and impact the health of humans that use the materials). For example, using data from Life-Cycle Analysis (LCA) studies of surfboards, the estimated CO2 footprint of a typical surfboard made in the USA is surprisingly large. For example, a 6’0 shortboard weighs about 5.5 lbs, however it causes over 600 lbs of CO2 to be emitted during the lifecycle of manufacturing, repairs, and disposal.1,2 These numbers place surfboards on a comparable emissions level to complex electronics such as cell phones and laptops, and like those products, the unfortunate reality is that the materials used to make surfboards require an enormous amount of energy and petrochemicals.
Fortunately, several companies have now innovated new surfboard materials that have a dramatic effect of reducing the toxicity and carbon footprint of a surfboard. These materials have few drawbacks, as they are stronger and more durable than traditional materials, and are priced comparably as well.
DEFINING AN ‘ECOBOARD’
Current benchmark for receiving an ECOBOARD Project -Verification logo, requires the surfboard to be made from at least one of the following components:
- A foam blank made from at least 25% recycled foam or at least 25% biological content*
- An alternative blank structure made from majority content (75%) renewable materials such as wood, bamboo, or similar types of structural bio-content.
- Resin made from at least 25% biological content*
Our research suggests that the use of these types of materials produces a longer lasting, high-performance surfboard, with a significant reduction in carbon footprint vs. a typical surfboard. The majority of toxic chemicals used in manufacture and board production can also be eliminated, which has significant human health and safety benefits for workers in the board building industry.
These criteria will be updated annually as ECOBOARDS become more common in the marketplace. For now this definition represents a significant shift in the status quo of how surfboards are currently made. More discussion of what constitutes an Ecoboard can be found in our Ecoboard FAQ.
* Biological content is technically defined as “biologic carbon content” as measured by the ASTM D6866 standard test for the presence of organic carbon molecules
THE SURFBOARD BLANK
The blank is the foam core of a surfboard, typically made from either polyurethane (PU) or expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam. It comprises ~26% of the carbon footprint of a surfboard.2
Caption: ~96% of the impact of foam comes from the raw materials extraction and processing.3 Therefore the best way to reduce the impact of the blank comes from using recycled content.
Recycled content Blanks currently available:
1. Marko Envirofoam EPS (~ 60% recycled content)
2. Greenfoam recycled PU (~40% recycled)
Performance of Recycled Blanks
Both Marko (EPS) and Greenfoam (PU) both claim that the performance of the recycled content blanks is on par with Blanks made from virgin petroleum. They have a comparable feel for shaping, they are nearly visually identical, and perhaps most importantly, they ride identical to their older ‘virgin’ blank cousins, so the surfer will feel no difference.
There is debate about the performance of EPS vs PU blanks. EPS is certainly stronger and more durable than PU, but some surfers prefer the ‘feel’ of PU vs. EPS. While other surfers may disagree on performance benefits, everyone agrees than an EPS/epoxy combination will have significantly better durability than a PU/polyester combination.
Environmental Benefits of Recycled Blanks
Lifecycle data on EPS production suggests that ~ 96% of the impact of virgin EPS comes the extraction and processing of raw materials used to make the foam. The final step of ‘blowing’ foam used by blank manufacturers uses very little energy. Thus the best way to reduce the impact of foam is to use recycled feedstock materials.
However, there is impact associated with the recycling process of EPS and polyurethane foam. The impact of collecting, transporting, and reprocessing waste EPS foam are small compared to the impact of extracting oil and refining it to produce virgin petroleum based foam. Sustainable Surf is currently working on the analysis of the impact of recycled foam and will publish formal results soon. Early results suggest that a 100% recycled content EPS blank has better than a ~ 50% reduction in lifecycle CO2 emissions.
Other Blank Options
Surfboards can (and are) be made with a wood or other similar bio-based core instead of foam, which completely eliminates the foam core. This results an even lower environmental impact than from a recycled foam blank. Commercial examples are Grain Surfboards and Ocean Green. While wood et al. is probably the best option from an environmental life-cycle analysis basis, it is our belief that wood et al. used for surfboards should additionally have to be sourced as locally to the point of manufacturing as possible. For instance, just to give a fictional example – sourcing wood from Central America to build surfboards up in Canada would not be an ecologically sound use of materials or resources, considering that Canada has a vast amount of wood resources.
THE SURFBOARD RESIN
Another significant impact of a surfboard comes from the resin used to laminate the fiberglass, comprising ~ 22% of the CO2 impact from a PU/PE board, and ~ 37% from an epoxy/EPS board.2 The most common types of resin are Polyester and Epoxy. Most surfboards use polyester resin because it is very easy to work with and has been the industry standard since the 1960’s. A small percentage of surfboards use epoxy resins.
In general, epoxy resins are technically superior to polyester resins because they are stronger, more durable, and have significantly less toxic emissions. However polyester resin remains the industry standard because it is very inexpensive and builders are extremely familiar with using it. Epoxy resins are more expensive, and use slightly different construction techniques that are less familiar to builders.
The newest development in resin technology is to replace some of the petroleum chemicals in the resin with chemicals derived from biological materials. For example, Super Sap made by Entropy Resin is an epoxy resin partially made from the waste byproducts of the pulp and paper industry and the biofuels industry, with total biological content varying between 25-50% depending on the specific resin used.
Performance of Bio-Resin
Bio-resin epoxy resin performs essentially the same as pure petroleum-based epoxy resins. Epoxy resins generally produce a surfboard with superior strength and durability than polyester resins. Epoxy resins do not shatter in the same way as polyester resins. The flex and surfing benefits of epoxy vs. Polyester is a matter of personal preference, with some people (and pro surfers) preferring epoxy boards over poly boards.
Environmental Benefits of Bio-Resin
Compared to polyester resin, all epoxy resins have dramatically less ‘toxic’ emissions of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). This is obvious in terms of the smell of the resin. Polyester resin production smells bad and a respirator is mandatory for the workers who use it, whereas epoxy resins are now available with zero-VOCs and do not require any special ventilation or breathing equipment. The overall effect is that epoxy resins are better for human health.
With regard to CO2 emissions, which is not a ‘toxic’ emission, epoxy and polyester resins have roughly equivalent emissions of CO2. The only way to significantly reduce CO2 emissions is to make resin with a biological or recycled component. Currently, Super Sap is the only commercially available epoxy resin with biological content (~15-50% depending on the model). Lifecycle Analysis on Super Sap shows at least a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions.4 This makes bio-resins significantly better for the environment than petroleum resins.
FIBERGLASS AND ALTERNATIVE FIBER-CLOTH MATERIALS
The vast majority of surfboards use fiberglass cloth impregnated with resin to create the hard shell of the board. Fiberglass is made from silicon dioxide, otherwise known as glass, and processed at high temperatures. However the overall environmental impact of fiberglass is minimal compared to the resin and foam blank. One study puts the CO2 impact of fiberglass at 5% of the total for a surfboard.2
Alternatives to fiberglass exist, such as woven bamboo cloth, hemp cloth, and bamboo veneer. These alternatives have varying impacts on performance, durability, and visual appearance.
Performance of Fiber-Cloth Alternatives
There is no clear consensus yet on any significant performance advantage or disadvantage of using fiberglass alternatives. Some builders suggest that bamboo cloth has a significantly difference flex performance that some surfers may prefer. Bamboo cloth seems less durable to dings than fiberglass, but is stronger in tension and thus the board is probably less likely to snap. A good combination may be to use a 50/50 blend of bamboo and fiberglass to get the best properties of each. Most alternative cloth materials tend to absorb more resin than fiberglass, so vacuum bagging is a good idea to prevent the board from becoming heavy.
Bamboo veneer does add a significant advantage in terms of durability, particularly against pressure dents on the deck of a board. However it does require vacuum bagging to ensure a secure bond to the foam, and thus may increase the labor cost of a board. Bamboo veneers generally have a beautiful classy look, which may be an advantage to some surfers.
Environmental Benefits of Cloth Alternatives
Because the overall CO2 footprint contribution of fiberglass is only 5%, alternatives to fiberglass are unlikely to result in any major environmental benefit through displacing fiberglass alone. If these alternatives reduced the amount of resin used, or increased durability, then perhaps an environmental benefit could be claimed. Or vis-versa, alternatives may actually increase environmental impact, as some builders suggest that bamboo cloth needs to be vacuumed bagged to prevent it from soaking up excess resin.
SURFBOARD FINS and PLUGS
The vast majority of surfboard fins are made from polyester resin and fiberglass or petroleum-based plastic. A growing number of fin makers are offering fins with a wood or bamboo component. Similarly, the fin plugs and inserts are generally made from petroleum-based plastic, although a few makers are now making plugs and fins with recycled plastics.
Fin characteristics such as flex, stiffness & drive are highly personal to each surfer, so there is no clear consensus to performance benefits of recycled plastic or wood/bamboo fins vs. fiberglass composites or virgin plastic. The various wood & bamboo fin options do have a unique look, which could be seen as an aesthetic advantage for some surfers.
Environmental Benefits of Alternatives
The overall CO2 footprint contribution of the fin system to the board’s total is small, but still noteworthy, since fins do constitute such an important performance function. In general, the use of Glassed-on fins would be seen as an environmental improvement since no plastic fin boxes would be required and production methods for glassing are less intensive. The use of a renewable material such as wood/bamboo would also be an improvement over virgin plastic fins. a recycled plastic fin would also be a preferred option to virgin material.
Vacuum bagging is a technique that can result in up to a 30% reduction in overall resin usage while resulting in a stronger, lighter surfboard. This technique essentially places a surfboard inside a vacuum-sealed plastic bag during the lamination process, which allows air pressure to optimize the bond between foam, fiberglass, and resin. The technique does utilize plastic bags and cloth ‘bleeder’ material, which would also contribute to the overall environmental footprint. However a detailed lifecycle analysis of this process has not been conducted. Vacuum-bagging is a labor intensive process that will increase the cost of a surfboard.
Vacuum-bagged surfboards can be lighter, stronger, and have a better flex-memory than a hand-laminated surfboard. This should result in a higher performing surfboard.
A detailed lifecycle analysis of vacuum bagging has not yet been performed.
1. Lifecycle analysis measures many different impacts from products, such as CO2, N2O, SO4, water use, and other pollutants. Sustainable Surf believes that CO2 is the primary pollutant to measure for three reasons. First, it is the primary driver of ocean acidification, sea level rise, and global warming, which significantly affect the quality of surf world-wide. Second, CO2 is a proxy for energy use for all materials, since most energy comes from fossil fuels. Finally, data on CO2 emissions from products is significantly more widespread than for any other pollutant. Thus Sustainable Surf uses CO2 as the normative measure of impact of all products, except in cases where the impact of other pollutants is quite significant (e.g. carcinogens from polyester resins).
2. (Schultz, 2009) http://sustainablesurfcoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Surfboard-Cradle-to-Grave-Technical-Report-June-2009-by-Tobias-Schultz.pdf