Low profile, high impact

Corey Lopez can vouch for the performance characteristics of a Green Foam board. Struntz/A-Frame

With 4 million to 5 million barrels of crude oil fouling the Gulf of Mexico, the rate of economic growth slowing and the U.S. Senate killing climate change legislation, the summer has looked like a cruel season for conservation. Behind the headlines, however, many in action sports have found a new source for activism.

Among surfers, the massive leak from BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf has rallied opposition to offshore drilling, aided fundraising for conservation and led to an innovation by a Southern California surfboard maker for sopping up oil spills. Meanwhile, a sluggish economy has meant sustainability makes increasing economic sense, especially to an East Coast skateboard manufacturer. And a freeskiing activist in Colorado says the failure of a climate change bill offers an opportunity for a do-over to get a better law on the books.

"This oil spill has touched so many people in so many ways that it has impacted conservation," says Matt McClain, a spokesman for the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit environmental organization with 90 chapters worldwide dedicated to protecting the ocean, waves and beaches.

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If there's one big myth, it's that it's going to cost a lot of money to do this.

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-- Alison Gannett

In July, the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association Environmental Fund raised more than $400,000 for ocean conservation during its annual Waterman's Weekend, the most in its 21-year history. In February, Hands Across the Sand, a movement begun by a surfer opposed to offshore drilling in Florida, organized protests at beaches around the state, and 10,000 people showed up. On June 26, after the Gulf oil spill, Hands Across the Sand organized a worldwide protest, and more than 100,000 took part in the U.S., 30,000 in Florida alone.

The movement so far reminds many of an earlier era. In 1969, a spill off the California coast left oil washed up on Santa Barbara's beaches, a disaster that led to the first Earth Day in 1970. "Our contention is that what you're seeing in Florida, that could happen at a beach near you," McClain of Surfrider says about offshore drilling. "People see this and say, 'I've got to get involved.'"

Stirred by a sense of personal responsibility and seeing good business in green enterprises, some figures in action sports have already begun making strides toward sustainability:

In a cluster of buildings known as the Surf Ghetto that houses operations for surfboard makers in San Clemente, Calif., Joey Santley and Steve Cox watched with alarm as oil leaked and BP dumped chemical dispersant into the Gulf this spring. But soon it gave them an idea: They knew from experience that surfboard foam soaked up oil following a small spill at their Green Foam Blanks factory last year. Would it work on a massive scale to sop up an ocean spill?

Santley and Cox already had a reputation for finding novel uses for recycled surfboard foam. Two years ago, the pair began making surfboard blanks from the waste at four nearby factories. With the factories churning out between 40 and 60 blanks a day, and roughly 20 percent of the material going to waste in the form of polyurethane foam dust, Green Foam has plenty of material to work with. "We've kept more than a couple of tons of waste out of the landfills since we started," Santley says.

Santley grew up in Orange County, working in his father's surfboard and boat-building factory, where products were made in the time-honored way from toxic materials such as polyurethane and polyester resin. "Surfboards have a huge carbon footprint," he says. "They're made out of petroleum products."

Cox is an inventor, who holds several patents, including one for a device dragged behind a boat that produces a surfable wave. Four years ago, he, Santley and some friends, including renowned shaper and owner of Lost Enterprises Matt Biolos, created ReSurf.org to reduce waste from the surf industry. Two years ago Cox teamed with Santley to start Green Foam, which last year led to a sort of Eureka moment:

Cox threw surfboard foam on a small oil spill in their factory in an attempt to contain it. He and Santley watched in wonder as the foam absorbed the oil. When images of the much larger spill in the Gulf flickered across their TV screens, the pair went to work and came up with OILiNEX SurfSoaker Booms, a containment system based on their observation that oil binds with surfboard foam, even in water. Following testing, they contacted the EPA, which in June approved OILiNEX as an absorbent. Coast Guard and BP officials didn't sign on in time, and it was not used in the Gulf.

In the meantime, investors have taken over marketing OILiNEX Inc., and Santley has returned his attention to running Green Foam Blanks. The sustainable boards have attracted plenty of positive publicity. Actor Matthew McConaughey and musicians Perry Farrell and Jason Mraz all ride Green Foam boards. So does pro surfer Cory Lopez, and current world No. 1 Jordy Smith has asked that Biolos shape one for him.

Support from industry heavyweights has helped. But Green Foam Blanks still must convince skeptical surfers that recycled boards work as well as traditional blanks. "Both ReSurf and Green Foam started when the economy was taking a nosedive," Santley said. "We're a brand-new brand getting vetted by the industry."

Robbie Gangemi had run a struggling skateboard factory for 10 years and says he was "desperate." A former pro skater from Boston, Gangemi was a top team rider for Zoo York during the 1990s. In 1999, he struck out on his own and built a factory in Boston to churn out decks to supply his new startup company and team. He was 23 and had no formal training in woodworking or business. Still, Gangemi created a brand, Vehicle Skateboards. He assembled a team of promising East Coast talent, including Eli Reed and Danny Supa. And his factory cranked out up to 10,000 boards a year.

But by 2007, paying his bills proved a struggle. Much of the skate deck production had moved to China, where cheaper manufacturing costs undercut domestic operations. Several of Vehicle's team riders jumped to bigger brands. And some key distribution deals with larger skate companies collapsed.

Gangemi decided that to salvage his business, he would reinvent Vehicle as a more sustainable operation. Skateboard decks account for much of the maple harvested annually in North America. And the manufacturing process leaves loads of waste. "It's disturbing," he says. "The whole time you're filling your dumpster with wood. You lose 25 percent of the wood from every skateboard you make."

Before Gangemi had ramped up production in 1999, a scientist from a glue manufacturer visited his factory and suggested making boards out of recycled materials, offering ideas on how he might go about doing it. Gangemi wasn't a die-hard environmentalist but says he was intrigued. "I was always into trying to do things a little cleaner," he says.

With his factory's future in jeopardy last year, Gangemi returned to the idea of recycled skate decks. He spent four months mixing glue ratios and perfecting a process that uses all recycled wood. "The whole entire tree can be used," he says, "and if they're skateboards, they can be reused. It's a more efficient way of using wood."

Most skate decks are constructed from seven layers of maple veneer. The veneers are glued together in the factory, then cut to shape. What's left over is all scrap. But with his proprietary process, Gangemi can reclaim the scrap or even a beat-up old board, and grind it up into wood fiber. Then, using a special glue formula, he refashions the fiber into maple veneers. Finally, he glues the veneers together just like any other deck, providing the proper amount of flex and pop. But unlike standard skate deck production, he does not use lacquer, which contains volatile organic compounds, gases the EPA notes pollute the air and can cause health problems.

Gangemi has produced several recycled prototypes. Rather than wood grain, flecks of fiber give the boards a unique look. In 2009, he filed a patent application for his manufacturing process, which he believes has wider applications in home construction and cabinet making. If approved, Gangemi plans to build a new factory and begin making recycled boards under the Vehicle brand. "A lot of industries are making really cool stuff out of recycled materials," he says. "The skateboard [industry] needs to step up their game."

When people ask Alison Gannett whether climate change is real, she refuses to answer directly. Instead she asks, "Do you want to save money?"

A former freeskiing champion and Winter X Games competitor, Gannett hucks huge cliffs and shreds heavy backcountry lines around the world, and has seen firsthand evidence of a warming planet. "In my lifetime, I have watched glaciers disappear before my own eyes," she says.

Still, Gannett believes that convincing people to reduce their carbon footprint requires finding common ground. "We need to run the numbers," she says about the economic benefits of going green. "We need to take the hippie-dippiness out of the movement."

Already boasting a degree in environmental science from the University of Vermont, Gannett took the opportunity of her seventh knee surgery (she's now had eight total) to throw her considerable energy into environmental advocacy. In 2004, she launched the Office for Resource Efficiency, a nonprofit that offers free consultations on how to reduce carbon emissions, and began her Global Cooling Tour, a traveling multimedia presentation about how rising temperatures are destroying snowpacks. She arrived at the stops in a vegetable-oil powered RV, by bike or on foot.

For Gannett, it's all part of practicing what she preaches. Ten years ago, she calculated her carbon footprint and was shocked. "Even though I thought I was doing a really good job with my carbon footprint, I was really green washing," she says. She says she has since reduced her carbon footprint 50 percent while saving money. Her most cost-effective measures? Not her electric car or solar panels at the house she built from bales of straw. Instead it was LED lightbulbs, surge protectors, an energy audit, and weather stripping and caulking.

She teaches what she's learned to schoolchildren as part of Save Our Snow, a foundation she created in 2006 that educates kids on their carbon footprints. This year, Save our Snow will partner with big-mountain shred Jeremy Jones and his foundation, Protect Our Winters, in making presentations at schools around the country. They plan to enlist the help of famous athletes to spread the word about climate change.

Last year, Gannett swapped the steep, narrow chutes of Crested Butte for the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., meeting with senators, members of Congress and the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, trying to convince them of the value of good climate change legislation. She made four trips to the capital, the final time riding a bike 330 miles from Pittsburgh as a marketing stunt.

When the U.S. Senate failed to vote on a bill this summer, Gannett was disappointed. Still, she says the watered-down bill, which called for a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, would have allowed industries to continue polluting, while raising the costs of doing business. When the Senate resumes business in September, Gannett will continue to lobby senators to run the numbers so that any new law saves money and slashes carbon emissions.

"If there's one big myth," Gannett says about reducing carbon emissions, "it's that it's going to cost us a lot of money to do this."

With the news cycle surrounding the environment often an endless loop of habitat loss, rising temperatures, pollution and health risks, the actions of Santley and Cox, Gangemi and Gannett may seem like relatively small steps. But now that a summer many would just as soon forget is behind us, it's important to remember that what might seem like steps backward can in fact be steps forward. And increasingly, it seems, those steps are being taken by men and women with boards under their feet.