Riding the Wave of the Future
★ By

Anne J. Tate
tains plant-based materials and is free of toxins. Boards made of expanded polystyrene, or EPS, are also gaining popularity because they are said to emit fewer pollutants during production. A Brazilian manufacturer has been using recycled polystyrene, and still other companies are experimenting with such green materials as balsa wood, bamboo, and hemp. Until recently, TDI was commonly used in the manufacturing of what are known in the surfing industry as blanks, the pieces of durable foam that are shaped into surfboards. Foam containing TDI produced moderately priced blanks that resulted in lightweight surfboards with a popular feel, but the emissions and waste from processes using TDI are bad for the environment, as is the dispersal of materials and chemicals that occurs when surfboards break or are discarded. In addition, the manufacturing of blanks with TDI can harm employees, sometimes resulting in sickness and death. Clark Foam, which had long been the dominant manufacturer of TDI blanks, was shut down by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2005, bringing about a wave of environmental soul-searching in the

n the lexicon of American iconography, surfers symbolize youthful rebellion, the celebration of glowing, ocean-honed physiques, and a gleeful love of sun, sand, and sea. Their lifestyle seems an exultation of nature and its aquatic glories. It may be surprising, then, to learn that, as they run toward the frothing surf, most surfers tuck under their arms a slab of toxic foam. That’s right. A majority of those sleek, colorful emblems of endless summers contain polyurethane foam made with toluene di-isocynate, or TDI, which is widely categorized as a carcinogen. And, as easygoing as surfers seem to be, they may be reluctant to give up their tried-andtrue surfing equipment, no matter how hazardous it might be. “As hip as everyone thinks the surfing world is, it’s slow to change,” says Ned McMahon, the managing director of Homeblown US. But change is coming. McMahon's San Diego-based company makes an alternative surfboard foam called Biofoam, which con-

surfing community. The closing of Clark has essentially blown open the market for blanks and board producers, many of whom are trying to build "greener" boards with less harmful chemicals and materials. Some surfboard designers, however, continue to use blanks containing TDI, buying them from countries with less stringent protection for the environment and workers. McMahon says that the technology for producing these kinds of blanks is not only harmful but also antiquated. Traditionally, workers would pour the foam mixture into molds from a bucket, increasing their exposure to chemicals, the possibility of imperfections in the boards, and the amount of waste in the process. Homeblown has developed a high-tech, computer-controlled machine to do the pouring, resulting in a more consistent product, less waste, and better protection for workers. And Homeblown’s philosophy includes keeping production close to home, thus reducing the need for shipping, which is the foremost cause of ocean pollution. But the real innovation, he says, is the material, nearly half of which is made of oils derived from agricultural products. Biofoam has higher compression strength, shapes more easily than EPS, and costs the same as TDI foam. Unfortunately, Biofoam still has a petroleum base and is not recyclable once it becomes a surfboard — as is the case with almost all boards because they are attached to wood and draped in fiberglass cloth. “We’re really proud of our Biofoam product, but it is just the first step,” says McMahon, who, like others in the industry, is continuously refing greener surfing materials. Ocean Green Surfboards out of Cornwall, England, makes custom surfboards of balsa wood laminated in hemp, but they are not as affordable as foam boards. McMahon himself rides a board that is made with “bioresin” and draped in hemp cloth. “You could chop it up and mulch your garden with it,” he says. And that’s the kind of product he hopes eventually to bring to his customers.