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It’s not easy being green

By Linda Van Zandt

It’s been almost two years since Gordon “Grubby” Clark voluntarily closed his foam blank manufacturing facility in Laguna Nigel, California. Faced with probable shutdown by the EPA, prompted in part by the largely residential location of his facility, the term “voluntarily” is used loosely.

Surfers love the notion they are a free-thinking, progressive bunch, but the 45-year stranglehold that Mr. Clark had over the surfboard building business says otherwise. “Clark Foam made it easy to stay stagnant. Aside from his ruthless business practices, it was still a cheap product that performed well for the craftsman and surfer. We became very lazy in terms of growth in surfboard manufacturing,” sites Rusty Preisendorfer, owner of Rusty Surfboards. “The sudden demise of Clark Foam has been a blessing. Suddenly there was a sense of urgency, which was very stimulating for the industry as a whole.”

So what was it exactly that got Clark Foam into its predicament with the EPA? The PU (polyurethane) foam “blanks” Clark Foam manufactured to eventually be shaped into surfboards were blown with TDI, or Toulene Di Isocynate. According to the EPA, exposure to this chemical can cause severe irritation to the eyes, skin, and respiratory and gastrointestinal tract. It is also listed as a possible carcinogen. Those in direct contact with the chemical are most susceptible, but neighborhoods can also be affected by the emissions, thus the problematic locale of his operation.

Making surfboards is a dirty business. In a world of increasing awareness about one’s “carbon footprint,” are surfers doomed to hypocrisy? Have we taken this opportunity to demand a product that is viable, sustainable, cost effective and green?

Well, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is no matter how hard we try most manufacturing, regardless of industry, is a dirty job.

The good news is we are making progress.

According to Rusty, polyurethane blanks will always have some demand. “About 20% of our business is the traditional PU blank. It has an artistic, classic quality to it. And for really big surf, it is still the superior material in terms of performance in the water.”

Current progression toward a greener polyurethane blank is coming from a San Diego based company called Home Blown Foam. Using a cleaner, less harmful blowing agent called MDI (Methylene di-phenyl di-isocyanate), this manufacturing system replaces the dangerous chemical agent, TDI. MDI evaporates at a rate 2500 times faster than its chemical counterpart, thus enabling safer handling, storage and utilization of the product. Less volatile than TDI, air quality management is easier to achieve. Currently, the downfall to MDI is the considerable cost difference compared to other foams as well as its yellowish appearance and overall strength of the finished blank.

Many surfboards are now made with EPS (expanded polystyrene) or X-EPS (extruded polystyrene) foam and epoxy resin. Think of the beaded ice chests you buy at your local convenience store. While there is no blowing component used in the production of these foam blanks, styrene and benzene are present. Nominally better than what previously existed, this is still far from “green.” However, the EPS foam scraps are recyclable and surfboard makers like Rusty are with the program. EPS is more durable and flexible, potentially extending the life of your surfboard. The resin used to harden these foams is an epoxy resin that emits significantly fewer VOCs (volatile organic compounds) than the resins used on PU boards.

Additional research incorporates the use of soy and sugar based foam products, clearly greener than their petroleum based counterparts. Innovations in resins used to harden the surfboard include the use of polyester resins, which contain no styrene or VOCs. Home Blown Foam has also been experimenting with a plant-based UV cured resin. Non-toxic, with no harmful emissions, this product is still in an experimental stage.

Fiberglass cloth, used to hold the shape of the surfboard, is another area ripe for innovation. While Kevlar cloth and other carbon-based fabrics are not necessarily greener than what is currently in use, surfboard makers are now experimenting with raw materials like bamboo, silk and hemp.

How committed are we to an environmentally friendly surfboard? Performance in the water will always be issue number one, with cost being a close second. Let’s commit to continued innovation by supporting alternative technologies with an open mind. In the meantime, we can easily extend the life of the equipment we already own. Invest in a board sock to keep dings and shatters off your rails. Don’t leave your board over-heating in the car. Fix dings immediately to alleviate water damage. And when you’re truly ready to replace your board, sell it, donate it or give it away. That is true recycling!

Contact Linda Van Zandt with ocean- or surf-related queries at lindav@san.rr.com.