That name dogged a generation of surfers. Sean Penn’s dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks, perpetually stoned surfer in Fast Times at Ridgemont High fixed the image of the sport in the popular imagination for decades. Sure, Jeff Spicoli was a caricature, even in 1982, but there’s some truth to the stereotype of self-absorption: Surfers’ environmentalism often ends at the water’s edge. Long after most industries at least gave lip service to sustainability, surfboard manufacturers continue to crank out toxic slabs of unrecyclable, petroleum-derived polyurethane—slathered in a carcinogenic polyester resin—that inevitably wind up in landfills.
“Surfers have always kind of been environmentally aware—until it came to their boards,” says Todd Patterson, cofounder of E-Tech Surfboards in Los Angeles. “Everything else needed to be sort of natural and all that stuff, but when it came to the boards they didn’t care—they needed what they were used to.”
Three years ago, professional big-wave surfer Greg Long could have been one of those guys. Now he rides Ecoboards, surfboards certified as sustainable through the use of recycled and nontoxic materials. “People are waking up that we haven’t been walking a path of sustainability,” says Long, 31, standing barefoot on a bluff overlooking Trestles, the iconic surf break in Orange County, California. We’re at the epicenter of the $7 billion global surf-industrial complex, home to high-profile surfboard makers, apparel giants such as Rip Curl and Quiksilver, and the surf media. “The way I see it is that we’re at a tipping point right now.”
That tipping point may well have come on March 31. That’s when Kelly Slater, the legendary 11-time world surf champion—whose every move is watched by his 3 million social media followers—won a heat in a globally broadcast competition at Bells Beach in Australia.
He was riding an Ecoboard.
That wasn’t just a one-off. Slater had just closed a deal to acquire a majority ownership stake in Firewire, a big surfboard maker that has switched its manufacturing process to make Ecoboards. “Firewire is committed to…making the entire process cleaner and greener. So it is a perfect fit for Kelly’s overall ethos,” Terry Hardy, Slater’s manager, said in an email. “If that helps the surf, or any other industry, change even one small thing, that’s a good thing.”
“More and more professional surfers are waking up, being educated, jumping on board, realizing, hey, it’s time to change this lifestyle,” Long says on a bright April day as waves peel below us. “What’s amazing about the surf culture is how many people embrace it; even those that don’t live by the ocean are influenced by it.”
It’s not just the pros. Other surfers are shedding their “whatever, dude” attitude to tackle issues threatening the planet’s life-support system—climate change, ocean plastic pollution, and "ghost nets," abandoned fishing gear that kills millions of marine animals every year.
TakePart Video: Pro Surfers’ New Wave: A Sustainable Sport
That Slater put an Ecoboard in his quiver owes much to the work of a pair of 40-something surfers named Michael Stewart and Kevin Whilden. Their two-man nonprofit, Sustainable Surf, created the Ecoboard standard, and over the past three years it has slowly persuaded major manufacturers to start making greener surfboards while getting pros to ride them.
“Our mission is to be the catalyst to transform surf culture into a really positive, powerful force to protect the ocean,” says Stewart. “If we can change the surfboard, the heart and soul of surfing culture, we can basically change everything.”
Gidget Goes Green
Change does not come easy to surfers or the surf industry. The look in the lineup is almost uniformly black and white: black wetsuit, white board. The first surfers, the ancient Hawaiians, rode naturally sustainable wood boards. But since the Gidget era, surfboards have been made from polyurethane and sealed with polyester resin. Sure, the boards are toxic, but they are bright, white, lightweight, and fast.
While surfboard design evolved over the past 60 years, the materials remained as toxic as ever. By the early aughts, though, some companies had begun to make boards from expanded polystyrene—aka Styrofoam—a more benign material that can be recycled. EPS boards don’t require toxic laminates, and though they’re not green, at least they don’t expose board builders to carcinogenic gases.
Then came a spate of unsuccessful attempts to make surfboards out of materials such as soy. Sustainable? Yes. Surfable? Not so much. And they weren’t bright or white.
“Surfers are not going to sacrifice the performance of a light board for being green,” said Matt “Mayhem” Biolos, owner of Lost Enterprises, a leading surfboard maker in San Clemente, California, when I interviewed him in 2009 for a New York Times story on two surfers who devised a way to recycle polyurethane into surfboard blanks.
Two years later, when I returned to San Clemente’s “surf ghetto,” the story was much the same. “I would use them if the customers wanted one,” said Jerry O’Keefe, owner of Soul Stix surfboards. “But I don’t think they got it where it’s superlight and superstrong, so it’s not being widely used.”
Soon an email from Stewart popped into my inbox. A hyperactive lifelong surfer who talks a mile a minute, Stewart founded Sustainable Surf after stints in the corporate world assessing the carbon footprint of everything from cell phones to cars. He and Whilden, a former green technology entrepreneur and geologist, had a better idea: Sustainable Surf had created the equivalent of the Certified Organic standard for surfboards that could be used industry-wide. Let manufacturers figure out how to meet the minimum requirements—25 percent recycled foam or renewable material such as wood, 15 percent bio-based resin—and they would be awarded an Ecoboard label.
Sustainable Surf also set out to make pro surf contests more ocean-friendly by creating a “Deep Blue Surfing Event” standard and working with big brands such as Rip Curl, Vans, and Volcom, who sponsor the competitions, to cut their carbon emissions. That gave the duo entrée to pro surfers and the shapers who make their boards.
“I think a decade ago the idea of sustainability and being green was something people laughed at,” Alex Gray, a pro big-wave surfer, says over coconut smoothies at a café in Hermosa Beach, south of Los Angeles.
Gray, 28, says he never gave it much thought. Then Stewart and Whilden put an E-Tech Ecoboard in his hands. The technology had improved—the surfboards were now bright, white, and fast. “It became my go-to board,” Gray says. “For four months, I rode that board at least four or five times a week.” (In a profession where pros can trash a surfboard in a week or less, that’s practically a lifetime.)
Now Gray’s a convert, and he and Long both promote Sustainable Surf and its program to get surfers to adopt a “Deep Blue Life” to reduce their personal environmental impact by using renewable energy and cleaner transportation and eating healthier food.
“When you ride a surfboard you’re so in touch with Mother Nature, but you don’t realize that where your board is coming from is really hurtful to our carbon footprint that we’re trying to reduce,” says Gray, who campaigned to defeat a recent ballot initiative that would have allowed oil drilling in Hermosa Beach. “Surfing is a selfish sport; it strokes our ego and it’s the most fun in the world, but we have to give back.”
Surfers’ propensity for flying around the world chasing the perfect wave is perhaps their greatest carbon crime. Yet a two-year surf safari transformed a Honolulu real estate developer named Kahi Pacarro into an environmental activist who makes waves as well as riding them.
“In Manila Bay, Bali, Vietnam, and Java, I was really seeing the third world adopting the behavior of the Western world with the overuse of plastics,” says Pacarro, 36, who became a global surf bum after the 2008 financial collapse. “They simply dump it in the street or a gutter, where it gets sent right to the ocean. So I was surfing in all of this trash.”
More likely than not, some of that garbage ended up on Pacarro’s home beach on Oahu. Hawaii is in the crosshairs of ocean currents transporting an estimated 5 trillion pieces of plastic around the world.
After returning to Hawaii, he founded the nonprofit Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii to throw beach party–style cleanups modeled after one he encountered in New Zealand. These aren’t your once-a-year, Earth Day–like pick-up-some-trash-and-go-home events. “Cleanups have historically been preaching to the choir; we want to expand the congregation and inspire local communities to care for their coastlines,” says Pacarro as we stroll Kailua Beach on the east side of Oahu. “We make it fun. We hide treasure bottles on the beach so kids can find them; we play games at the end. We have live music; we have plastic-free food. No utensils.”
Kailua Beach appears pristine on this postcard-perfect March morning, but look closer and you see that the sand is peppered with tiny bits of blue and green plastic. Pacarro randomly scoops up a bucket of sand and dumps it in a portable sifter, uncovering an assortment of colored pieces of plastic. He picks up a white chunk that he recognizes as a remnant of a Japanese bleach bottle; a jagged blue piece shows signs of being nibbled on by fish. A week earlier, he says, a dead sea turtle washed up on this beach entangled in fishing line, while a brown-footed booby was found nearby choked by a fishing net.
During a February cleanup on Oahu’s North Shore, 360 people collected 2,000 pounds of microplastic along with another 2,000 pounds of buoys, fishing nets, and other large debris. “Beach cleanups can be a tool to foster a broader connection to the world, because it’s our trash coming back to our beaches to bite us in the ass,” says Pacarro, whose group also helps divert waste from pro surf contests. “What I want to see is surfers taking a more active stance on bigger issues, such as plastics, water quality, ocean acidification, and other stuff relevant to the sustainability of surfing.”
Next month, Pacarro will join biologists sailing to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, an uninhabited archipelago of atolls and islets that is home to the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal. Ghost nets pose a major threat to the 900 monk seals in the islands, and Pacarro will gather data on the extent of the pollution and show National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration staffers how to effectively clean beaches and identify which plastics can be recycled.
Sustainable Coastlines stockpiles some of the plastic it collects and twice a year ships it to Method, the maker of eco-friendly cleaning supplies, which recycles the trash into liquid-soap bottles. Pacarro is also working with Bureo, a company started by three surfers that recycles fishing nets into skateboards. “These nets are killing animals right here at our front door,” he says.
Nets to Decks
A few years ago, David Stover, Ben Kneppers, and Kevin Ahearn were living in Sydney and jetting off to surf in Indonesia and other locales. “No matter where you travel, how remote you were, plastic was washing up onshore,” says Stover, a cofounder of Bureo. “It kind of blew our minds. You’re sitting in this unspoiled place with beautiful waves coming in and everything so pristine, and then you get out in the water and are surrounded by trash.”
Mechanical engineers by training, the three friends set out to find a way to take plastic out of the ocean. “As surfers and skaters, we wanted to find a product that would make a connection between the ocean and people,” says Stover, 29.
Kneppers, 30, subsequently took a job in Chile. His friends joined him, and they secured funding to start Bureo—the word means “waves” in the language of the native Mapuche people.
In Chile, fishers often discard their nets at sea, as they can’t afford to dispose of them at the country’s privately owned landfills. Bureo buys the nets from the fishers and then recycles them into plastic pellets that can be formed into the decks of skateboards. Over the past two years, Stover says, the company has taken 10 tons of potential ghost nets out of the ocean and made them into skateboards.
Bureo plans to expand into other coastal communities around the world and is investigating ghost nets’ potential to be made into other products, such as surfboard fins. “We see definite applications in surfing,” says Stover, who now works out of Los Angeles with Ahearn.
When I first met Stewart and Whilden three years ago, only a couple hundred Ecoboards had been made. This year, that number is expected to hit 20,000. That’s a fraction of the roughly 300,000 surfboards sold annually. But Patterson, the E-Tech cofounder, says business is growing rapidly. “Just in the four years we’ve been open we’ve seen an incredible increase in the environmental awareness among surfers,” he says.
I see more Ecoboards in the lineup at my home breaks in Northern California and almost always get questions from other surfers about my own board, crafted by San Francisco shaper Danny Hess out of salvaged poplar built around a recycled foam blank. When I go surfing with Stewart and Whilden, they lay out half a dozen Ecoboards made by Lost, Firewire, and other big brands. I choose a bamboo-decked Lost shortboard, made in 2012 by Biolos, and one that persuaded him that Ecoboards could be just as high-performance as the toxic variety.
One wild card for the future of sustainable surfing is Slater. Now that the world champion owns Firewire, will he continue to ride Ecoboards in competition and influence his legions of followers to go green? (“When it comes to competition, he’ll ride whatever he feels gives him the best opportunity to win,” says Hardy, Slater’s manager.)
“My vested interest in surfboards is beyond riding them,” Slater said in a recent interview with the World Surf League. “I think the options there for sustainability are far greater than the average surfboard being made. Environmentally, I would say the chemical makeup of boards is destructive.”
For Whilden, the path to the future lies in the past, with the first surfers. “The ancient Hawaiians had a sustainable society where they were very in tune with what was happening on the land and in the ocean,” he says. “Ancient surfboards were always Ecoboards.”
Long thinks surfers are ready to embrace a new surf culture. “People want to be part of the change,” he says. “And it’s happening.”
Spicoli is dead.