Turning recycled foam into surfboards

Waste to Waves foam recycling bins are in surf shops from San Diego to San Francisco. Courtesy photo

Surfboard construction has undergone a renaissance in the last decade, with shapers experimenting with a myriad of core materials, from closed-cell foams to repurposed wood. Sustainable Surf, a California-based environmental NGO, hopes its newest campaign will instigate the next shift in the steady evolution of board composition and design.

It is called Waste to Waves (WTW), and it's simple enough: convert recycled packaging Styrofoam into raw surfboard blanks. WTW's partners at Marko Foam have long produced environmentally friendly blanks using recycled foams and woods.

"Our big idea was to figure out how to dramatically expand on that foundation, and to open it to the general public," explains Sustainable Surf's Michael Stewart. To do this, their focus turned to acquiring large quantities of post-consumer expanded polystyrene (EPS) found in TV, computer, and other packaging.

Sustainable Surf started providing recycling bins at surf shops from San Francisco to San Diego that already receive shipments from Marko Foam. Delivery trucks return to the factory filled with collected EPS, thus lowering transportation costs and emissions and boosting logistics efficiency. The point, says Stewart, is to make it easy for surfers to participate.

WTW has collected some 4,500 pounds of recycled foam since the program's inception in November, and has been contacted by businesses, universities, and local governments voicing interest in aligning their recycling efforts.

Recycled foam is processed in one of two ways. The foam can be ground into fine particles and blended with virgin EPS as it expands inside of a compression mold to form a blank. Or the material can be condensed into solid blocks and shipped to raw material suppliers where it is remanufactured into recycled polystyrene beads, which are then incorporated into the normal foam blank production process.

Sustainable Surf claims that a fully recycled board has half the carbon footprint of virgin EPS. Revered shaper Timmy Paterson has sculpted several recycled foam blanks. Epoxy resins are typically petroleum-based, and often leave the largest carbon footprint in surfboard production, so Paterson laminated his with a bio-resin containing pine oil from pulp mills and non-food grade vegetable oils.

Right now WTW is a California-centric operation, but plans to spread across the United States, and perhaps abroad, are slowly forming. "It takes a collective effort by specific partners -- collection, transportation, raw materials and surfboard manufacturing --to pull this program off," says Stewart. Although, some shapers and glass houses have not yet taken to the technology, because of perceived imperfections with recycled foam cores.

Stewart says success will arrive when WTW has foam densification sites near each participating city, so that the recycled material can reach the commodities market faster and in larger quantities than is possible with the current operation. For now, they'll have to rely on the exposure pro riders like Mike Lossness bring to the campaign.

Looking forward, Sustainable Surf and the Association of Surfing Professionals recently partnered to administer "greening guidelines" for contests -- the same enacted at the 2011 Rip Curl Pro Search in San Francisco -- that are based upon standards developed by the Global Reporting Initiative and have been adopted by the International Olympic Committee.