Questioning “Green” And What Plastics Mean In the Surfing World

Archived from May 2011 – http://mossresearch.blogspot.com

Over the past month I have had the pleasure of speaking with Bryson Roberson from the Ocean Gybe Expedition. He was curious about my process of building eco-surfboards and how it could potentially influence sustainability in the surfing industry. Below is a cyber-interview consisting of Q’s and A’s, giving insight into a traveling surfer’s perspective on plastic products and the need for alternatives.Bryson Robertson holds a PhD in Environmental Engineering. His PhD thesis involves investigating the actual breaking of waves and characterizing all the effects that shape the breaking conditions, which we imagine relates to how plastics move about the ocean, breakdown and become bio-accumulated, washing up on beaches worldwide.Bryson gave presentations about his voyage and plastic marine debris at the 5th International Marine Debris Conference in Hawaii and the Clinton Global Initiative in San Diego this year.

The OceanGybe Expedition is a global sailing exploration of remote coastlines of the world, in search of adventure, surf and garbage. Their goal is to bring awareness to the vast tracts of undocumented ocean pollution that afflicts every coastline and affects the peoples who depend on them for survival. Over the past four years, Hugh Patterson, Ryan Robertson and Bryson Robertson have been sailing around the world documenting the polluted state of our oceans and the isolated beaches due to plastic and other detritus. They have sailed some 70,000 ocean km, visited almost 30 different countries, crossed the three major oceans of the world, and presented their message of conservation to over 10,000 students in 15 countries. There is heaps of info on the website: www.oceangybe.com

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Q’s & A’s between Bryson Robertson and Jake Moss:

BR: What is a “green” surfboard in your vision?

JM: We prefer using the term sustainable. “Green” gets thrown around so much as a feel good marketing term with no real criteria for measuring a products impact on the environment or people’s health…

Sustainable references the broader context in which a product is created – addressing not just the product but the systems and cultures that produce and create the demand for something. This is where you measure real environmental, human and socio-economic impact. Striving to improve all of these by embracing responsible business practices is where the entire industry should stand. This is the Moss Research vision.

BR: Can you explain why your idea or technology is better and greener than those used conventionally? I am sure there are pros and cons to each but what is your viewpoint on them?

JM: Our Eco-Flex process removes air-borne toxins from the working environment. It relies roughly 80% less on virgin petrochemicals, and it uses a domestic supply chain, ultimately, yielding a stronger, lighter, and more dynamic surfboard. The final product is also highly recyclable. Our goal is to keep our production process as local as possible and to close the loop in surfboard manufacturing so that one day, Moss Research boards can be completely recycled.

BR: There are always different ways to quantify “green” materials with regards to energy used for transport costs, the land and oil used for growing costs (bio-based products) and chemical costs to produce the feedstock and the rest of the lifecycle costs. How do you stand with regards to your technology and it’s environmental impact?

JM: In the “Wild West” of surfboard production there has been virtually no environmental standards. The idea of an industry being born of and still supporting toxic, plastic manufacturing conceived in the late 1950’s is completely contradictory to the original philosophy of surfing.

We see this as a call to action and a chance to start over, this time on the right foot. Collaborating with outside sources we’ve evaluated the factors that define sustainable manufacturing in the form of a Company Sustainability Report and have used this to show our sustainable manufacturing is founded and quantifiable. You can check it out on our website at www.mossresearch.com. This is an essential leading step and we are the first to have taken it.

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BR: Many life-cycle analysis’ for consumer products are cradle-to-grave analysis and the final waste stream is just neglected as thought it 
doesn’t matter, which in my research area of plastics in the ocean, is like 
pumping gas into your car and then assuming the emissions don’t exist. What is 
the final resting place for your product and will it allow the surfboards industry begin to realize a more cradle-to-cradle approach?

JM: Recycle-ability in the end product is hugely important otherwise the circle of hypocrisy continues each time we paddle out on boards that will never biodegrade. 30% of plastic waste, if not landfilled, has the potential to end up in the ocean, in the North Pacific Gyre or worse. No surfer wants that.

But it’s not easy to be part of the solution when the products and processes offered by the industry are all part of the problem. This is why we believe in providing both an ecologically sound surfboard and incentives to our customers to return their broken or old EPS boards so that we can deconstruct and repurpose them. We also find feedstock otherwise headed to the landfill to fuel our process. So, in our case, the board is made of recycled materials and can be recycled again. We are proud of what we have achieved so far but are continually working to improve these processes even further.

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BR: Feed stock consistency is an issue with many recycled based materials, does this affect your business model or not? Ie. For the 100 % recycled EPS foam blanks, how do you ensure that all the EPS blanks are the same given the varying sources of the incoming EPS? How do you work with/around this issue? I am not a chemist but assume the variability 
in the inputs would alter the quality of the output, no?

JM: The feedstock is all the same, #6 EPS. It is rated by weigh and density. I have always found it to be more accurate and consistent throughout than traditional polyurethane blanks, whether recycled or not. No material is perfectly consistent. Recycled EPS, wood, polyurethane… all have quirks that any experienced shaper should be able to work through.

BR: Generally, all new technology does not yet have the economies of scale to allow their impacts (positive or negative) to be weighted 
correctly and objectively compared against current status-quo technologies. How 
does your foam/resins/boards stand up right now and what is predicted for the future in terms of “green-ness” factor?

JM: This ambiguity is why we’ve worked with outside resources including Tobias Schultz (Berkley MS, Lifecycle Analyst and founder of Sustainable Surf Coalition) in evaluating our boards through a Company Sustainability Report (CSR). We have earned an Endorsement of Sustainability evaluating product performance, workmanship and reduced impacts. These criteria will have to be updated every 6 months as the process evolves, to ensure they represent an accurate evaluation of what we’re doing, including:

  • Performance
  • Craftsmanship and Durability
  • Use of Low Impact Materials
  • Minimizing Health Effects Toward Workers
  • Participation in Coastal Environmental Protection
  • Community Engagement and Contributions to Non-Profits and Charities
  • Transparency and Readiness to Adapt
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BR: What is the biggest hurdle for “green” surfboards to get decent penetration into the market?

JM: First and foremost, you have to get the boards right. You need an excellent performing product. Then the challenge is education and marketing. We are getting the message out, letting people know that Moss Research boards are an alternative… the alternative many people have been looking for. If the industry has been good at selling unhealthy ideas for so long then selling better products and practices shouldn’t be difficult, especially given the need.

BR: I am sure they are new handling/temp/storage/ lifetime requirements for bio-based boards and resins. How are these better/worse than conventional boards and will they ease or burden the manufacturer, store person, final owner?

JM: Our Eco-Flex™ technology uses post consumer EPS foam that is hydraulically blown with clean steam as opposed to MDI or TDI (diisocyanates used in polyurethane blanks) and is 100% recyclable #6 material. The blank, when exposed to water absorbs at a rate of 1% over 24 hours, so virtually no water enters the core when the board is dinged. When exposed to heat, we have had no instances of delamination. This is attributable to the high adhesion and elongation properties of the resin; the boards’ decks conform to natural foot impressions but hold up when ridden hard.

Working with bio-resin is more difficult and takes practice. The learning curve will turn off many production shapers who rely on the business model of building low-quality board quickly and cheaply. We have perfected our process and are set up for full-scale production including custom orders. Handling bio-resins in terms of temperature and storage is no different other than the absence of noxious fumes. The owner should take special care not to use any polyester resin for repair with our product.

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BR: If I was going to buy a new “green” surfboards would it – 1)
Perform just as well as my current board? 2) Would it cost me 
anymore? 3) Would it last as long or deteriorate more rapidly/slowly?

JM: It should work better, cost a little more and last about twice as long. This is our standard –a square deal that makes all parties feel good.

BR: Most of the material I have read about green surfboards and 
the bio-foam has been focused on how it is a different colour, aka 
browner, than traditional boards. Is this really the biggest issue with “green” 
surfboards? There must be greater concerns with “green” boards than just the color? Care to enlighten me?

JM: Ultimately, a surfer cares most about performance and longevity, which together equal reliability. The idea that a board should be perfectly white amounts to years of unhealthy conditioning. It takes a lot of bad chemicals and processing to make the white boards we’ve gotten used to. At the end of the day, the typical white PU/PE, sanded-finish board is considered a disposable item. Are we really so dumbed down that image-driven marketing and conspicuous consumption are more attractive to us than doing the right thing for our own health? White surfboards are kind of like asbestos; they seemed like a good idea when we didn’t know any better.

I can’t speak for all “green” products, but many of them are neither better for the environment nor longer-lasting – some are just “greenwashing” which is typified by an unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue, creating a pro-environmental image to sell products.

An “eco-board” creator should back their product with a Sustainability & Performance Report and work out all the kinks before taking it to market, offering transparency, otherwise their whole idea and credibility will be blown.

BR: Until the world decides to put a financial price on environmental degradation, why would a backyard shaper start to use bio-based 
materials? VOC’s, Handling, etc. I imagine ? and how would his practices have to 
change to make the switch?

JM: It’s no secret that the chemicals involved in making standard PU/PE and Epoxy surfboards have negative impacts on the environment and expose shapers and workers to VOC’s and carcinogens – they cause cancer. Knowing this, the idea of making a board using toxic materials just because it meets a certain aesthetic or price point seems insane. So does exporting these manufacturing practices to developing countries for their lesser standards and lesser labor costs.

Unfortunately, this exemplifies the production model that’s come to dominate the surf industry. For us, switching over to making Eco-Boards was about making a decision that we could stand behind, then doing the intense research and testing that led to the right materials and techniques to meet our goal. Surfing has always been at the cutting edge culturally – that’s its saving grace, and the movement towards sustainable surfing. Everything we’re doing at Moss Research, is part of that.

BR: “Green” technologies all around the world have been set- 
back by early products being released to consumers before the product has been properly tested in all environments. How do you all go about testing your products in the long term to ensure I will not get a delaminating surfboard/fin/product 6 months – 3 years down the line?

JM: This is a crucial observation. With the wrong approach or poor research, even the best intention can end up being a bad apple that spoils the bunch. This might have been the case in years past and excused the industry to cling to toxic, antiquated processes for decades. New technology should always be tested in all conditions and pass for “as good” or “better” than what’s come before it.

Our Eco-Boards are better to surf than conventional boards. The bio-resin gives about 20 times the elasticity to breaking point as compared to polyester resin. The testing has been lengthy and thorough – we’ve spent nearly 4 years developing our process to ensure significant measurable improvements in terms of environmental impact, worker safety, and most importantly, product performance. We have been extremely careful not to bring something at a sacrifice. This is where we are now and it’s only getting better – there’s always room for innovation because sustainability, for us, is an evolution, not an endpoint.

BR: Many people consider many “green” products to be either for the rich eco-yuppie or the stinky hippy. Where do you see most of customer base? Would it be within the preconceived social groups or are all social groups cottoning on to this greener trend?

JM: One of the greatest things about surfing is it has no gender, socio-economic or age boundaries. It’s global. Surfers come from many different backgrounds and approaches but all rely on the same things. We are like a family connected by our deep respect for and love of the ocean. Keeping plastics out of our second home, restoring healthy environments, getting better value and performance from our products, and working towards healthier practices in our industry are things that resonate with all surfers. This begins with CREATING CONCIOUS CONSUMERS by FOSTERING EDUCATION through TRANSPARENCY, ACCOUNTABLITY, DILLIGENCE, and SUPPORT. “Green” isn’t about having money or wearing patchouli, it’s about making smart, sustainable decisions – a way of thinking that’s been too long coming, but its time has arrived.

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