Ever since the 1950s, when surfboard construction materials transitioned from redwood and balsa to foam and fiberglass, the toxic nature of surfboard manufacturing has been one of surfing's biggest environmental impacts.
The main "ingredients" in making a surfboard have not changed since the late 1950s/early 1960s. They consist of a polyurethane foam blank (with a wood stringer), fiberglass, and polyester resin. While these materials have allowed the sport to make significant advancements in surfboard design, they retain equally significant drawbacks, including potential hazards to individuals working with these materials, potential contamination to the environment, and the resulting production of a non-renewable product.
Polyurethane (PU) foam is made using toluene diisocyanate (TDI) (a highly toxic and irritating liquid) and polyether compounds. Some types of fiberglass cloth are treated with toxic chemicals like chromium, and breathing fiberglass dust can be hazardous. Polyester resins are made from dicarboxylic acids and dihydroxy alcohols and they release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to the atmosphere when they cure.
The search for alternative materials for surfboard construction began in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Gary Young in California (later in Hawaii) and Greg Loehr in Florida were two of the early proponents of using epoxy resins in place of polyester resins. Epoxy resin has about 75% fewer VOCs than polyester resin and about two-thirds fewer VOCs are released into the atmosphere when it cures. Epoxy resins can be cleaned up with organic citrus based cleaners rather than flammable and toxic acetone. Epoxy resins can also potentially be derived from several types of plant resources, including sugar and agrigum (a wild desert plant).
With epoxy resin, the use of a polystyrene blank became possible (polyester resins dissolve polystyrene). Polystyrene blanks are lighter than urethane blanks, and although they are not as strong, the hard epoxy resin shell tends to counterbalance this. In fact, some epoxy boards don't have a stringer. Polystyrene foam, unlike urethane foam, can be recycled. It's also safer for shapers to use and less toxic. Polystyrene is available as both expanded polystyrene (EPS) and extruded polystyrene. The extruded product has the advantage of not absorbing water.
Gary Young in Hawaii developed a bamboo woven mat/epoxy (instead of fiberglass/polyester resin) surfboard in the mid-1990s and then moved on to a bamboo veneer/epoxy board that was copied by Bamboo Surfboards in Australia. The bamboo veneer boards have a very light, durable skin and use extruded polystyrene blanks, as do Fletcher Chouinard's boards. Gary Young has more recently been utilizing wood skins from the invasive pest tree albizia over recycled xps foam blanks, with reinforced composite rails. Hess Surfboards are constructed using a recycled EPS core, a vacuum-formed 1/8th-inch thick wood deck and are glassed with Entropy Bio-Epoxy.
Surftech's "Tuflite" technology, developed by Randy French, uses a fiberglass/PVC/fiberglass sandwich with epoxy resin to form a hard, durable shell over the EPS blank. Surftech has now developed several additional technologies aimed at improving durability while maintaining high performance.
In addition to being less toxic, surfboards utilizing polystyrene foam and epoxy resins maintain greater durability over those using traditional materials, which translates into a more environmentally friendly product, since less surfboards end up in landfills.
In addition to epoxy construction, other technologies continue to develop including various monocoque (a type of construction in which the outer skin carries all or a major part of the stresses) designs and hybrid designs, such as Salomon's S-Core technology – which fused a carbon fiber beam and shell with a foam deck. A more recent very specialized construction is the surfboard made by Mercedes-Benz for big wave surfer Garrett McNamara.
In December 2005 the primary supplier of polyurethane blanks, Clark Foam, ceased production and closed its doors for business. While the Clark Foam factory closure resulted in a temporary shortage of urethane blanks -- as well as a subsequent rise in the price of surfboards, these shortages and price increases were only temporary, while at the same time spurring further innovation and use of alternate materials for surfboard construction. It is hoped that these advances will ultimately result in a more environmentally friendly and durable surfboard.
Since we wrote this article in early 2006 there have been several important developments in the use of new “environmentally friendly” materials for surfboard blanks, cloth, resins, etc. These include “biofoam” (polyurethane foam made locally with less hazardous methylene di-phenyl di-isocyanate [MDI]). Biofoam is produced by replacing the polyol component of the foam with materials converted from natural plant materials, such as soy and sugar or even algae. And in 2013 we started hearing about Mushroom Surfboards. Additional products include bamboo stringer EPS foam, various types of bamboo cloth, and even organic plastic leash plugs made from corn starch. Then there are several people making (or selling kits to allow you to make) hollow wood boards, some of which have an EPS spine and ribs or other internal reinforcing materials, and even a comeback in solid wood boards. Check out the links below for more information.
Also see the article "Sustainability in the Industry" which appeared in the April 2011 issue of Making Waves.
Many additional ways of making surfboards, surfing and surf travel more sustainable were discussed at Groundswell Society’s 12th Annual Surfing Arts, Science and Issues Conference, held on Saturday, February 15th, 2014 at Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego. More on this.
Surfer Magazine published an article The Green Wave in January 2015 that further explores recent efforts in developing environmentally friendly, sustainable surfboards.
In August 2015 Surfrider Foundation and Firewire announced a collaboration featuring Firewire’s popular ADDVance model, built using Firewire’s Timbertek construction.