Local surfers and shapers recognize the impact harmful toxins used in the traditional surfboard-making process has on the environment and, as a result, have turned to alternative methods to shaping boards.
Finding ways to build sustainable surfboards is a growing trend in the surfing community in San Diego, especially among shapers who are frequently in direct contact with toxic chemicals and materials.
Shapers are surfboard craftsmen who build their own surfboards using styrofoam, shaping tools and various resins. Some surfers are seeking new-school methods with less toxic materials, while other surfers prefer to stick to the original way of making surfboards in order to preserve the authenticity of surfing.
There are also other surfers, however, who believe the new approach to making surfboards is just as harmful as the new, alternative methods.
“We [surfers] are searching for materials, alternative materials, which are not necessarily better,” said Tim Bessell, shaper and owner of Bessell Surfboards in La Jolla, San Diego.
A long-time approach to surfboard making
The lightweight surfboards seen in music videos of the popular surf-pop band, The Beach Boys, were first introduced to the surfing industry in the 1950s.
The boards were made with a polyurethane core, reinforced with fiberglass and polyester resin, which has since been the traditional way of surfboard manufacturing.
To this day, 85 percent of surfboards manufactured by big surfing companies are polyurethane boards.
Although surfing would appear to be an environmentally friendly industry, with its images of nature and surfers’ efforts to keeping the ocean and beach clean, making surfboards is actually a rather dirty business.
The art of making surfboards is not known to be “eco-friendly” because the chemicals used to make the foam core of surfboards are toxic and flammable. Most surfboards today are shaped with harmful resin and slabs of polyurethane.
The waste of polyurethane and broken boards eventually end up in landfills.
Additionally, the shaping process produces fine foam dust, which can be harmful if inhaled, and the laminating resin gives off poisonous fumes that can harm health conditions.
“The surf industry has been using certain materials for a long, long time, mostly because they’ve been available and affordable,” said Chris Clark, CEO of Shaper Studios, a surfboard shaping company based in San Diego.
The two resin systems used in the manufacturing process are polyester and epoxy. Epoxy is compatible with polyurethane and expanded polystyrene styrofoam (EPS), which are little pallets put into a mold under steam and pressure that expand like a styrofoam cup.
Tim Bessell is a shaper based in La Jolla and has been using polyurethane in his surf shop to manufacture boards for more than 16 years.
“They haven’t labeled polyurethane foam a carcinogen, and I don’t have any reactions to it at all,” Bessell said. “There’s other people in the industry, who will state the same thing, and it’s usually people who are a lot older and have done a lot more production.”
Bessell doesn’t work with styrofoam because it is classified as a carcinogen by Center For Disease Control and Prevention, he says. These studies have found that the toxicity levels of all human beings has gone up with the daily use of styrofoam, which is why he stays away from it.
“I don’t even use styrofoam because I have systemic hives from it and a lot of other shapers have that also,” Bessell said.
Polyurethane foam disintegrates quicker than EPS plastic, which takes 10,000 years to breakdown, but EPS can be recycled and polyurethane cannot, according to San-Diego based surfer and owner of Pooh Surfboards, Ryan Siegel.
“The argument in the surf world is that EPS plastic is better because it can be recycled since its already been glassed,” said Seigel. “It’s recyclable foam, but the truth is no one recycles.”
An alternative approach to surfboard making
Rich Pavel, owner of Greenroom Surfboards in Ocean Beach, Calif., discusses the idea of making a green surfboard and what it means to be a shaper in the surfing community. Owner of Alen Beels surfboards, Alan Beels, explains the importance of disposing toxic chemicals used in the surfboard industry.
In 2005, the United State’s largest supplier of surfboards, Clark Foam, closed down because of the company’s use of the chemical found in polyurethane, TDI, in a residential area. Some surfing companies, as a result, started making foam with MDI, which is a carcinogenic alternative to TDI.
The use of MDI in the surf industry is rare because the marketplace is against it, since it’s hard to find and difficult to work with, according to Seigel.
“It has a stigma in the marketplace, so no one is really doing it, but you can make really good foam with MDI,” Seigel said.
The shutting down of Clark Foam caused many surfboard manufacturers to find new ways to make blanks with different materials.
“It made people realize that there are non-toxic materials out there that won’t cause cancer or irritation,” said Chris Clark. While polyester resin may be the norm for many companies, other surfers are seeking alternative, eco-friendly options for surfboards, such as the use of epoxy resin, which has become popular in recent years.
Some surfers are turning to epoxy resin, instead of polyester, which when hardened is almost non-toxic, according to the Department of Health Services. Clark uses epoxy resin at his shop, Shaper Studios, and recycled styrofoam blanks.
“Everything impacts the beach, so the materials we use are a step in the right direction,” Clark said. “I don’t think there’s ever going to be a zero-impact way to build boards, but our environmental stances is to support the organizations that protect the oceans and the environment.”
In comparison to epoxy, the polyester chemicals used to make most boards are toxic and flammable.
The process requires explosion-proof fume removal equipment and careful control of the room temperature and humidity.
“We kind of drew a line in the sand and said, ‘we’re not really going to go backwards in history,’” said Clark. “We’re going to see what out there is newer, better for the customer and better for us as shapers.”
Since epoxy is a household product, it is also non-toxic and doesn’t require vapor masks or additional equipment when applying it, he says.
“We’ll post a lot of pictures of people shaping or glassing,” Clark said. “And we’ll get a lot riffraff of people saying ‘why aren’t you wearing masks? Don’t you know that stuff causes cancer?’”
By the standards set by the Occupation Safety and Health Administration epoxy resins potential for respiratory exposure is fairly low, according to OSHA. Epoxy is also more durable and the process takes twice as long and costs twice as much in comparison to polyester.
“The price and availability has been key to keeping these really toxic items in the surfing industry for so long,” Clark said. The types of chemicals and the type of blank used will determine the life expectancy of a surfboard and the way it responds in the water. It will also take more materials and more money to manufacture the board, which will affect the consumer cost.
Although shaping an epoxy board is arguably less hazardous to the environment and the manufacturer in comparison to a poly board, the styrofoam used to make both types of boards is still one of the top three items of concern for beach cleanliness in San Diego, according to the Surfrider Foundation.
“This is our playground, and we don’t want to throw trash in our playground,” said Clark.
Old-school surfers have yet to embrace a new-school method
Since epoxy can only be used on a Styrofoam blank, it’s not sought after in the surfing community because some surfers prefer the authentic feel of riding a polyurethane board versus a Styrofoam board, Clark says.
“When people first heard about epoxy it was this plastic board,” Clark said. “It didn’t feel like a surfboard, or ride like a surfboard, but it’s a very good replacement for polyester, which is the standard.”
Although the majority of the boards manufactured today are made out of polyurethane, some surfers are beginning to switch over to epoxy because of the advantages to surfing with an EPS foam board coated with epoxy, even though it’s not a popular opinion.
“When you call your board an epoxy board it should have the connotation to be twice as good, last twice as long and twice as responsive, but it has this really bad negative connotation,” Clark said.
Justin Trinidad, a graduate from San Diego State University, recently shaped his first longboard at Shaper Studios and noticed the difference when riding an epoxy board.
“It’s more buoyant, so you can shape smaller boards, and it floats better,” Trinidad says. “It’s lighter and stronger for paddling and with surfing it’s faster and easier to turn.”
Some argue that the benefits of this new-school approach to using other chemicals for shaping and glassing is a marketing myth. One of the myths is that epoxy floats more than polyester, according to Bessell.
“Gravity doesn’t understand a polymer because all it understands is volume and weight,” Bessell said. “If you have two objects that are the same in volume and weight and made out of different materials, they may not react the same on a wave, but they’re going to float the same because you need specific polymers to act in certain ways.”
Epoxy is harder, stronger, rigid and more durable than polyester, according to Clark. But Bessell said this new opinion that has emerged in the local surfing scene, mainly among younger surfers who have been influenced by the rise of manufacturing companies pushing epoxy in the surf market place.
“It’s a marketing tool,” Bessell said. “When clark went out of business, surftech came out with epoxy technology, but 95 percent of the people out there don’t realize that epoxy is a resin system, so it’s not a foam system and, so, you’re putting epoxy on a styrofoam, which is a known carcinogen.”
San Diego-based surfboard shaper, Tim Bessell, discuses the pros and cons of materials used in surfboard manufacturing. Bessell’ has a shop based in La Jolla where he makes surfboard designs using traditional polyurethane boards.
Although some people are turning to epoxy resin because they see it as more “eco friendly,” some old-school surfers still prefer the feel and shape of traditional poly boards.
Seigel, who has hand shaped over 400 boards, realizes the divide between surfers in the issue of poly versus epoxy.
“It’s really a personal preference, and it depends on the surfer and what you like,” Seigel said. “I, personally, just ride polyurethane boards because that’s what I’ve always ridden.”
Owner of CSMK Surfboards in Ocean Beach, Rick Strom, also shapes and rides a polyurethane board because it’s what he’s used to and most comfortable with.
“I’ve noticed with most people, we’ve all grown up on polyurethans boards and that’s what we’ve used for so man years,” Strom said. “And with epoxy, its a different type of foam, different flexes, different resin, so it’s a totally different flex pattern than you get with a polyurethane board and some people like that or they don’t.”
Although there are obvious differences about performance, strength and durability, there is no consensus in the surfing community whether epoxy boards are actually more environmentally friendly than polyester, especially among older and younger surfers.
“There’s nothing eco-friendly about epoxy boards,” says owner or Alan Beels Surfboards, Alan Beels.”
From a working standpoint, it’s a really nice product to work with because you don’t have the fumes, you have a little more time, but to think that you’re saving the planet from surfboard building, not so much.”
Whether surfers lean toward epoxy or polyester-based boards, the one thing they can all agree on is that wood is the only true green surfboard out there.
Beels points out that the key to building a more eco-friendly surfboard is how you dispose of the toxic chemicals inevitably used in the manufacturing process.
“Just doing little things like recycling the acetone goes a long way,” Beels said. “
You’re doing more to be green that way than anything else than just by using it, but it sounds cooler, ‘I’m using it.'”