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For eco-friendly surfboard shapers, more kelp in the lineup

Surfboards have a toxic history, but a San Clemente shaper hopes to improve their 'eco cred' with greener materials.

April 16, 2010|By Mike Anton
  • Joey Santley collects surfboard foam dust at the Lost Surfboards factory in San Clemente. The founder of Green Foam Blanks uses his proprietary formula to recycle the waste dust to make new surfboard blanks. "This is like a perfect powder day," Santley said.  See full story
Joey Santley collects surfboard foam dust at the Lost Surfboards factory… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

Surfing's dirty secret is easy to find in the drab enclave of San Clemente known as the surf ghetto, where the ocean breeze is spiked with the sweet smell of chemicals and men wearing flip-flops and coated with white dust search for magic inside blocks of toxic foam.

Joey Santley is looking for something equally elusive: an environmentally friendly surfboard. Or at least one with a carbon footprint that's less titanic.

"A 'green surfboard' is inherently an oxymoron at this point," said Santley, 44, a frenetic surfboard shaper and entrepreneur. "Hopefully in the future it won't be."

Two years ago, Santley and a partner formed Green Foam Blanks, which makes rigid foam surfboard cores by fusing polyurethane with recycled polyurethane dust gathered from workshops that would otherwise discard it. That yields more boards per ounce of toxic polyurethane. The company recently signed a deal with a leading maker of traditional blanks to manufacture and distribute its product in North America, Japan, Europe and Costa Rica.

Still, this being a start-up, Santley is chief dust collector as well as part-owner.

He darts down a gangway between two nondescript buildings and bounds up the stairs of one of the neighborhood's numerous surfboard factories. Under a whirring cutting machine, he hits gold: a pile of white polyurethane foam shavings as light as Rocky Mountain snow.

"This is like a perfect powder day," Santley said, shoveling the stuff into a trash bag and holding it aloft. "Probably enough for about a dozen boards. And it won't end up in the landfill."

For the committed, surfing is a spiritual enterprise -- a connection with a divine energy unleashed by the interaction of wind, water and ocean-floor geography.

That the appliance surfers use to tap this energy is made from petroleum-based foam, polyester resins and chemically treated fiberglass has long been surfing's quiet contradiction. A broken board tossed in a landfill will take generations to biodegrade; the plastic fins probably never will. Even the thin strip of wood that runs down the middle to provide strength comes at an environmental cost -- a minuscule yield from the raw material it's milled from.

That this is the way most boards have been made for half a century is a reflection of Southern California's home-grown surfboard industry. It's a low-margin business bound by stubborn craft traditions and near-mystical customer expectations of how a surfboard should feel and perform.

In recent years, a wave of experimentation has sought to detoxify surfboards by utilizing materials that suggest the Whole Earth Catalog rather than the Periodic Table of Elements. Hemp, bamboo, kelp and silk instead of fiberglass. Foam made from soy and sugar. Adhesive resins made from linseed, pine and vegetable oils.

But changing the way surfboards are made has proved to be as difficult as riding the pumping winter swell at Pipeline.

"Changing the surfboard industry is like trying to turn an aircraft carrier," said Ned McMahon, 54, a founder of Malama Composites, a San Diego company seeking a niche for its soy-based surfboard blanks. "Surfers are supposed to have this reputation for being free-thinking. . . . But they're really just sheep following leaders."

For most of the last 50 years, the primary sheep herder was Gordon "Grubby" Clark, who along with Hobie Alter pioneered the switch from wood to mass-produced, lightweight foam surfboards.

The irascible Clark perfected the cell structure of his polyurethane blanks, formed by the reaction of liquid chemicals poured by hand into one-of-a-kind molds Clark built himself. They were strong, light and easy to shape.

Clark's take-no-prisoners business tactics -- shutting out competitors by threatening to withhold blanks from shapers who patronized them -- gave him a near-monopoly. Clark Foam became the industry standard.

But Clark's Orange County factory eventually caught the attention of environmental and workplace regulators. At issue was one of the main ingredients in polyurethane foam: toluene diisocyanate, or TDI, a possible carcinogen that can be inhaled and absorbed through the skin. In 2005, Clark -- in his 70s and fearing legal liability -- abruptly closed his business.

"My full-time efforts will be to extract myself from the mess that I have created for myself," he wrote to customers.

Entrepreneurs rushed in to fill the void. Some tried to replicate Clark's formula. Others switched to blanks made from expanded polystyrene, a less toxic, recyclable material used in disposable coffee cups.

The few who have sought to go greener have confronted unanticipated chemistry, entrenched aesthetic preferences and a cool reception from shapers and professional surfers reluctant to fix what they don't consider broken.

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