Friday, June 6, 2008


From the HomeBlown website

To go �green� is everywhere, even in our world of surfboards. While a surfboard is a composite structure that is made primarily from petroleum based products and hardly could be called �green�, there are a few steps in the right direction. Any step forward is a good one and should be applauded but the truth is surfboards have a long way to go.

To understand this, it is important to understand a bit about the materials now used and then more importantly some terminology.

The standard issue surfboard for the past 47 or so years has been made from polyurethane foam (PU) and polyester resin with a fiberglass cloth. PU foam is petroleum based as is the polyester resin and although fiberglass starts life as a clean natural product, to make it workable it is run through very toxic chemical baths. No �green� here.

Epoxy boards have been around nearly as long as the above PU boards but have only recently made big inroads. These are made with polystyrene foam and there are two types. The beaded ice chest or coffee cup style is expanded beads (EPS) or a version that looks more similar to PU foam which is extruded (EXP). Both of these still use the fiberglass like above but the resin used is epoxy resin � hence the name.

These two versions of surfboards still make up the majority of surfboards available. Variations on the idea such as the variety of molded boards now in acceptance still use the materials listed above.

So where is the green part? None of the foams above are green in any way and in fact some are quite bad to both the local environment because of the VOCs released and to the workers for the somewhat deadly chemical exposure. To explain further lets look at the above materials again.

PU foam is made basically from two parts, a polyol and an isocyanate. Until recently nearly all blank companies made PU with a TDI isocyanate. The �T� in TDI is Toluene and has been recognized as a carcinogen. So TDI foam is bad for the local environment because of VOC emissions and very bad for the worker because exposure to Toluene can be deadly. The other type of PU foam is MDI. MDI has much lower VOC emission and the danger to the worker is mainly from dust in the demolding process. This is not �green� either but is the first step toward something just slightly better. Now there are a couple of companies that are using plant based polyols of soy and sugar. These PU foams are more �sustainable� � definitions to follow.

Epoxy boards are a real misnomer because epoxy can also be used on polystyrene boards. It wasn�t use used on PU boards because it is more expensive and harder to work with. The polystyrene (PS) boards are no better than above. It is true that epoxy emits 75% fewer VOCs than polyester resin and this is its only claim to being �greener�. PS foams are made with styrene and benzene both of which are carcinogens. PS foams also claim to be recyclable and that is true but PU foams can be recycled too and the truth is neither is recyclable once they are in the composite structure of a surfboard.

So what is all the talk of �green� surfboards? It is time to look at some key words or phrases and their definitions. Words such as environmentally friendly, recyclable, biodegradable, life cycle, carbon footprint and sustainable are being thrown around with no real relation to what is happening in the construction of surfboards.

�Environmentally friendly or eco-friendly� is a term given to goods and services considered to inflict little harm on the environment. This term can�t be used with most surfboards built today. Even with the fewer VOCs of MDI and epoxy resins it is only slightly less bad.

�Recyclable� means being able to reprocess used materials into new products. This process reduces the consumption of raw materials and may reduce the energy needed for its manufacture. While parts of unused foam can be recycled � that is without a stringer or glass or resin on it � surfboards as a whole are not recyclable.

�Biodegradable� is the process of materials being broken down by other living organisms. This is most often referred too when something becomes waste and is thrown away like a broken board. Most plastics don�t biodegrade but can degrade over time with exposure to UV and air referred to as oxidegredation. Neither process with surfboard materials is quick. While it takes 2-5 months for paper to degrade and cigarette filters up to 12 years, EPS foam takes up to 100 years. So the term biodegradable doesn�t really apply to surfboards either.

�Lifecycle� of a product is the examination of all that goes into that product considering the energy needed to make the components of the product and the total impact not just of the finished product but the steps along the way. As we have seen above with a petroleum base for foam and resin together with the chemical baths needed to treat the fiberglass, the true lifecycle impact of a surfboard is quite high. If shipping is added, it is even higher. The carbon footprint of putting surfboards in a container and shipping them around the world or just shipping a box across the country is huge. Once again the surfboard is far from �green�.

A �carbon footprint� is a measure of impact on the environment in terms of green house gasses produced and is measured in units of carbon dioxide. There are two parts. The primary footprint measures the direct emissions of CO2 from burning fossil fuel in energy consumption and transportation. The second footprint has to do with the CO2 emissions from the entire lifecycle of the product. The entire process of building a surfboard from any of the foams all the way to driving to the beach for a surf makes for a pretty large carbon footprint and again not too �green�.

Finally, �sustainable�. Sustainable is defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainability relates to the continuity of economic, social, and environmental aspects of human society. Read this definition slowly and fully take in its meaning. When considering surfboards, from materials and manufacturing methods used to all the places around the world boards are being built, once again sustainable is not a word to describe a surfboard.

So the terms eco-friendly and surfboards shouldn�t be in the same sentence. However, there�s some hope for the future. Some blank manufacturers are starting to use plant based polyols in the PU mix. Both the soy and sucrose (sugar) based PU foams are a step in the right direction. The lifecycle of the plant based polyols have a 25-35% less environmental impact. Energy consumption to produce these polyols is far less too. Of course, the total composite is still not green but it is a step in the right direction.

New polyester resins are available with no styrene that has no VOC emissions and is safer for the workers. Other resins are being tested such as polyureas that too have no VOC emissions. Homeblown US now has a 98% plant based, UV cured resin. This resin is non toxic with no harmful emissions at all. These new products are steps in the right direction but they all have new issues of workability, cost, or esthetics but with time the surf market will accept products different from clear white surfboards as long as the performance is there.

The fiberglass cloth may be the hardest part to get around. Other fabrics like Kevlar and carbon fiber are no greener that fiberglass. Natural fabrics like hemp, silk, bamboo, and more are now used to replace fiberglass. Again the esthetics of the standard issue clear board is being challenged as these fabrics are not like the disappearing fiberglass the industry has become accustomed to.

In surfing performance is the key. All the lab tests, numbers, and results don�t mean anything until the board is in the water � that�s where the testing really begins. Being more green or environmental is not enough if the performance isn�t there. But now surfboards being made using plant based blanks, natural fabrics and plant based resins that are working as well as any boards ever. They look different for sure but this combination is really starting to approach something that we can call a �green� surfboard.


With both the white MDI surfblanks and the Biofoam surfblanks are slightly harder to plane because of their cross-linked properties. Planer blades need to be sharp and/or you need to mow the blank a little slower than typical TDI foam.

If the blank is cut on the computer there is no problem. The tight cell structure and properties of MDI allow it machine very cleanly.

When finish shaping the white MDI surfblanks it might be best to start with one grit coarser to sand than normal and then finish from there as you normally would finish. You�ll find that although it may take a couple more minutes to finish, the resulting board is super clean, strong and takes color better.

The Biofoam surfblank is very easy to finish with the normal shaping process used. It may feel a little on the soft side when finished but let the blank sit overnight before glassing and it will harden up tons.


Glassing the white MDI surfblank is as normal except that you will find that it takes 10 � 15% less resin to laminate resulting in a very strong and light board.

Glassing the Biofoam surfblank takes a little extra care. While Biofoam surf blanks make great surfboards, some issues have come up as to the way they take color, airbrush in particular. While color in the laminate works great, or of course, art on the hot coat, much airbrush color on the foam crystallizes. Clear boards or those done with resin tints have been working well. If using polyester resin squeegee on a cheater coat of resin to seal the blank before you laminate. Then proceed as normal.

If epoxy is used, consider the airbrush notes above, then glass as normal.

* NOTE: Please realize that Biofoam surfblanks are a new product and although they have been tested and make beautiful functional surfboards, all variations of color layup and airbrush have not been tried yet. We have done opaques and tints and some airbrush that have all come out well but we simply have not hit all the color range.

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