Holiday shopping is upon us, and whether they do it in the stores or online, Americans are going to buy an absurd number of appliances, electronics, gizmos and gadgets in the run-up to Christmas.
With those gifts will come millions of pounds of packaging. While the cardboard box encasing your flat screens and Vitamixes typically can be recycled, the protective packaging foam (commonly known as “styrofoam”) that keeps those goodies snug usually can’t. As a result, most foam ends up in a landfill or, even worse, in the ocean.
Michael Stewart, co-founder of Sustainable Surf (a San Francisco nonprofit), discovered this sad reality over years of participating in California beach clean ups. Tired of seeing this type of plastic trash in and around the ocean, Stewart and Sustainable Surf’s other co-founder Kevin Whilden started the Waste to Wavesprogram, which aims to recycle styrofoam packaging back into new products — most notably, surfboards.
Surfboards can be made with one of two types of foam: polyurethane or polystyrene. Polystyrene, the kind used for foam packaging, is a petroleum-based product that isbanned in various cities.
Through collection bins at California surf shops, the program gathers polystyrene foam from packaging and delivers it to program partner Marko Foam. Marko Foam uses a densifier machine to grind up and melt the material, which is molded into a brick of recycled foam.
Marko Foam then sends the bricks to a raw materials processor, which uses the material to produce a new recycled-content polystyrene bead, which Marko Foam buys back to make their recycled Enviro-foam surfboard blanks.
Blanks are made into boards by surfboard shapers. Twenty pounds of foam can be recycled into about five surfboard blanks. Stewart estimates that in the two years since the program’s inception, Marko has sold 1,000 blanks to shapers and recycled over 40,000 pounds of foam.
Recycling foam into boards solves two problems: it answers the question of what to do with existing foam produced by other industries, and it prevents the surf industry from adding to the foam epidemic. “The surfboard is the iconic symbol of our sport … but the surfboard is also seen as one of the most toxic vehicles in action sports,” says Whilden.
Though the program’s accomplishments are impressive, the demand for recycled boards has not yet met the supply of recycled foam that Waste to Waves has amassed. The program partners have been working hard to prove that the recycled boards perform just as well as those made with new EPS foam, enlisting professional surfers like Torrey Meister and Rob Machado to showcase the boards’ riding potential.
“We found that there’s no degradation or loss of strength by going to the recycled material, which was the key part of making this successful,” says Marko co-owner Clay Peterson.
Until demand meets supply, Waste to Waves is still doing whatever it can to make sure foam packaging stays out of landfills and away from the ocean. After a hugely-successful Waste to Waves collection program at the Volcom Pipe Pro surf contest in Hawaii last January, Turtle Bay Resort asked Sustainable Surf if they could help recycle foam from a huge renovation project at the hotel. Partnering with local company Pacific Allied Products and nonprofit Sustainable Coastlines, they have collected 600 pounds of foam from the construction site. The foam can be made into recycled products like cafeteria trays or picture frames.
Waste to Waves has clearly tapped into an enthusiastic desire on the part of consumers to responsibly dispose of wasteful packaging. The challenge now is to awaken the surf industry to the potential to radically green its practices. Stewart puts the onus on the surfers: “It’s really up to us, to ask your shaper to use these things and make your next surfboard a more sustainable one.”