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Styrofoam, Surfboards and You

By Natalie Jacobs

Polystyrene, more commonly known as styrofoam, is probably the world’s most hated plastic. It’s bulky, it flakes off everywhere, it’s terribly bad for you if heated or used to carry hot liquids, and it’s really hard to recycle. But notice that I didn’t say impossible to recycle. Given that it is very dangerous when it’s hot, special facilities need to be used to recycle this number six plastic. Since recycling cardboard and aluminum is hard enough, most recycling organizations don’t even bother, which is why 98 precent of the polystyrene that is produced goes directly into a landfill where it will sit until the end of time. But it can be done.

In case you didn’t know, surfboard blanks are made of polystyrene. Actually, most are still made with polyurethane foam, which is not at all recyclable and is much more toxic to the environment. But after Clark Foam famously shut its doors in 2005 amidst controversy with the EPA, the industry has been slowly moving toward expanded polystyrene, or EPS, as its plastics material of choice (which is good not only for the environment but for surfers, as EPS is higher performance, lighter and more durable). And it’s recyclable.

Waste to Waves, a program run by Southern California-based nonprofit Sustainable Surf, is working on both sides of this coin. First, they partnered with EPS blanks company Marco Foam which has been making blanks out of recycled styrofoam since 2009.

“They hadn’t got a lot of interest in the marketplace,” explains Kevin Whilden, Sustainable Surf co-founder and executive director, “so we figured that [Waste to Waves] was an interesting way for them to talk about this product, which works great and everyone should be using, as a way to draw attention to [Marco Foam’s recycled blanks] as well as to actually solve the problem of styrofoam in the ocean.”

To accomplish this, Waste to Waves works with surf shops to collect foam from the public. They place a box in the store and Marco Foam picks up the contents when they come to the shop for a delivery. In 2012, they collected about 30,000 pounds of styrofoam through this program.

A blank weighs five pounds, so even though they’ve collected a lot of foam, it’s only a very small portion of the styrofoam that exists and it’s way more than is needed for blanks. So most of that foam is actually used to make all kinds of recycled styrofoam products.

More of the recycled styrofoam could be made into blanks, though, if there was more demand for the product. The problem is, most surfers and shapers don’t even know that recycled EPS is an option. The other side of Sustainable Surf’s coin is the Ecoboard Project, their education and labeling program created to change that.

“Surfboard shapers are a funny bunch,” says Whilden. “They tend to be pretty risk averse, they don’t want to change their technology at all. And surfers didn’t know to even buy [recycled EPS boards]. All you have to do is tell the shaper ‘hey, I’m buying a board from you but I want it made with recycled polymer or bio-resin’ and then the shaper will order that stuff and that’s the way it goes.” 

According to Whilden, there is nothing to be afraid of with recycled EPS blanks.

“It’s just slightly harder to shape, but not significantly. Any good shaper can handle it, no problem at all. You can tell it’s recycled, it doesn’t shape as good as virgin foam. But I would be very [reluctant] to say that it’s not as good, it’s definitely as good, it just takes slightly more care from the shaper. And once the surfer gets it, they can’t tell the difference whatsoever. But it has had 40 percent less environmental impact because it’s recycled.”

Big board companies like Channel Islands and Lost are starting to incorporate recycled materials but as with anything, it’s a matter of cost and production times. If there isn’t demand in the market, these large manufacturers have less incentive to change their practices. So for now, like most things, the movement has to come from the ground up.

Currently, you can find Waste to Waves drop-off locations in San Diego at the following stores:

For more information on Waste to Waves, visit their website: http://wastetowaves.org


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