Monday, August 13, 2007

Green Surfboards

'Green' surfboards are more environmentally friendly


VENTURA, Calif. -- When the Clark Foam company unexpectedly shut down in December 2005 because of environmental reasons, some said it spelled doom for the surfing industry.

Many thought the price of surfboards would double because the limited supply of polyurethane foam blanks, which serve as the lightweight core of a standard surfboard, would cause production to tank.

Chuck Menzel of Ventura, Calif., has invented a recipe for biofoam, which is nearly 50 percent plant-based.

Made from renewable agricultural resources, biofoam does not contain any toxic materials known to be harmful to the environment or people, said Menzel, owner of Ventura-based WetSand, an international online surf shop, that is preparing to open its first retail store.

Biofoam is like a regular foam blank, but its cell structure is denser, and petroleum-based polyol has been replaced with organic and domestic soy polyol.

Biofoam boards, which hit some surf shops earlier this year, will cost an average of $500 to $700.

There are an estimated 700 to 800 biofoam boards out there, said Ned McMahon, general manager of the Homeblown US manufacturing plant in San Diego. The company makes and sells foam blanks to surfboard shapers. Menzel has licensed the formula for biofoam blanks to Homeblown US, which launched production Feb. 1. About 500 biofoam blanks are produced per month.

Many foam blank manufacturers were apprehensive when Menzel pitched biofoam, but the concept was well received by Homeblown US.

"It's what needs to happen. It's just the necessary steps to move forward," McMahon said. "We play in the ocean -- that's what our whole lives are based around."

The biofoam is the first step toward something more environmentally friendly, but "it's not the Holy Grail," McMahon said.

The soy polyol has 25 percent to 30 percent less environmental impact than the petroleum-based product, McMahon said.

"We go surfing on a pretty toxic piece of mess," McMahon said. "They don't biodegrade; you can't recycle them. It's not sustainable, not very green." In Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and San Francisco, "everyone wants a biofoam board," McMahon said. But other parts of California, including Orange County, have been slower to catch on. He said some have been dissatisfied with the colors because the browns and reds seem to crystallize and don't come out as well as on polyurethane boards.

In 2006, Menzel founded, a non-profit that promotes environmental awareness about surfing and the ocean. It also encourages surf companies to develop green products.

WetSand's new retail shop is "built around the cultural integrity of surfing," and will be an environmentally driven store. Cardboard packaging for shipping products is made from recycled paper. There aren't any paper towels in the bathroom. All eight employees are assigned a cloth towel to dry their hands.

And products are as green as Menzel can get, from organic clothing to a surfboard changing bucket made of recycled rubber. He's also developed an environmentally friendly surf wax, made of clay and beeswax instead of petroleum.

"It allows us to bring to walk-in customers what we do online," Menzel said.

The private company, founded in 1998, generates more than $1 million in annual sales, and it is growing steadily. More than 40,000 people a day visit WetSand's Web site to get weather forecasts, with more than 250,000 unique visitors worldwide as month. The company will soon launch a new state-of-the-art surf forecasting system.

It wasn't the closure of Clark Foam, but the industry's response to the company's shutdown that prompted Menzel to ask himself: "Is anyone thinking of environmental foam?"

After Clark Foam closed, China and other countries stepped up production of foam blanks and began to mass produce surfboards, flooding the market. All of a sudden, there was too much foam, and not the good kind, Menzel said.

When green became popular, foam out of China was touted as green because the blanks were stronger and would supposedly last longer, even though surfboard blanks were made using TDI, or toluene diisocyanate, a raw toxic material that is a known carcinogen.

"That would be like calling a Hummer environmentally sound because it's going to last longer," Menzel said.

So Menzel decided to pursue biofoam, made with a manufacturing process called MDI, or methylene diphenyl diisocyanate, that doesn't have the release of volatile organic compounds of TDI.

He took a basic recipe to chemists who specialize in biomaterial. It took a year to get the flexibility, shaping, characteristic, weight and strength to match that of regular foam.

Biofoam boards cost, function and look the same as regular boards, except they are a light creamy yellow instead of bright white.

"It was very important that biofoam was not disruptive material that shapers would have had to relearn how to shape," Menzel said, adding that no one expects biofoam to replace regular foam, but at least people now have a choice.

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