One of the greatest gifts Hawai'i has shown the world is the art of surfing. He'e nalu, wave sliding, is a natural, fluid and beautiful sport where a rider must become one with their dynamic aquatic environment and wave riding craft. Traditionally, koa wood was the material of choice for the long, heavy original Hawaiian surfboards, which could stand the elements and the test of time. These days, however, with the inevitable competitive drive to go faster, fly higher and ride waves deeper, equipment has for decades been purely synthetic and chemically manufactured, a product of modern-day chemistry. Surfers are still engaging in an incredibly organic act, but ironically, riding boards made from dangerous toxic chemicals. To add insult to injury, as surfboards become lighter and faster, the higher their predilection for breaking, so inevitably more and more boards made of foam and resin are pumped into the surf shops and into the water and then into the waste stream.
How can we fix this? How can we make surfing more sustainable and environmentally friendly while not compromising the progression of the sport, which utilizes instruments so utterly unsustainable? What are our options? Shapers conscious to the toxic-board, natural-sport conundrum have been working on a solution, beginning over a decade ago. On O'ahu, renowned North Shore shapers Jeff Bushman and Kyle Bernhardt have been, as their motto goes, "transforming industry from ego to eco." Shaping and marketing their craft under the label Country Feeling Surfboards, the two shapers have been constructing boards of all kinds with non-artificial, non-uncertain ingredients. Instead of polyurethane foam blanks they use soy-based and sugar-based foams. The deck inlays are made from hemp, organic cotton and bamboo. They use a silk-resin catalyzed by the sun, which prevents 70 percent of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) from escaping during the glassing process. Not to mention the hemp is as strong as fiberglass cloth.
On the other side of the pond, Fletcher Chouinard, son of Patagonia owner Yvon, has been creating his own version of the less-toxic board under the FCD (Fletcher Chouinard Designs) label. With his main objective of minimizing the use of toxic and non-renewable materials, Fletcher has been shaping blanks made of extruded polystyrene, EPS, a material similar to common beverage containers. Extruded polystyrene foam also contains no VOCs and has a constant density throughout the blank, thus making the boards stronger and longer lasting. The boards are glassed with an epoxy resin–epoxy being two-and-a-half times stronger than the industry standard polyester resin. If one perspective of sustainability is the capacity to endure, than Fletcher's durable boards define this lasting antithesis to the myriad fragile, industrial pop-outs manufactured in China.
Another homegrown option conceived on the Big Island and rapidly gaining popularity in the surf world is grass–fiber-grass. Actually, it's bamboo, which is not a tree, but a super grass. Big Islander Gary Young of Bamboo Surfboards Hawaii has been creating surfboards using bamboo and other non-toxic materials for decades. Bamboo, one of most renewable woody resources, is also 15 percent lighter than regular fiberglass. Plus, bamboo floats while fiberglass actually does not. Gary uses a bamboo-epoxy composite to laminate a recyclable, non-toxic polystyrene (hand-shaped) foam core. It resists dings and has the highest strength to weight ratio of any board making materials. Off cuts of bamboo can even be recycled into mulch for packing furniture or landscaping earth fill.
Kevin Seid, conscious O'ahu surfboard shaper and founder of the new company Everpaddle, has applied less-toxic technologies to surfing's sister sport, stand-up paddle surfing. His stand-up paddle boards utilize recycled EPS foam, bamboo and hemp cloth, less-toxic epoxy resins and recycled plastic fins. Seid also builds hand-shaped wood paddles with reclaimed hardwoods–mahogany, mango, basswood, even koa–from Hawai'i wood mills and construction sites, as well as bamboo.
Another option, this one from the reuse part of the triangle, is to dive into the online swap meet of used surfboards floating around on Craigslist. For beginners and novice surfers just learning the sport, buying a used board is the best way to be a sustainable surfer. You'll save money on the purchase price and when you're just learning the basics, you won't know the difference between a yellowed, well-ridden Glenn Pang fish and a bright and shiny new Al Merrick pro model. And think of all the history and wisdom that used board has gained over the years; it's the best teacher money can buy.