Before surfing became a multi-million dollar industry, sustainability wasn't an issue. Early surfers rode boards shaped from wood, not for the reason that it was an environmentally sound option, but because it was available and it worked. But as surfing gained mass popularity during the mid-80s, production methods changed to meet the demands of a new generation of surfers, marking the beginning of the chemical age of surfing that still exists today.
Surfboards, wetsuits, leashes, repair kits, and more, are all known to be made with substances that are toxic to the environment. This taboo, which hangs over every surfer's head, goes mostly untalked about for understandable reasons. Patagonia, however, is making great strides towards environmentally conscious surfing with the announcement of their 2016 line of neoprene-free wetsuits. Surely, this is not the first attempt by a company at making sustainable surfing gear. But while many have introduced less environmentally damaging alternatives, none have created anything as revolutionary as a wetsuit completely free of neoprene.
How is neoprene harmful to the environment, you ask?
The scientific answer to that question will likely put you to sleep. So, here’s a translation: Wetsuits are made from foamed rubber, sometimes called a sponge. To make this foamed rubber, thousands of polychloroprene - a.k.a. neoprene - chips are melted and mixed together. To make these chips, manufacturers must use a chemical called butadiene, which is derived from petroleum. Red flag.
As one may assume, materials that are derived from petroleum involve huge environmental impacts. Scientists at Patagonia, in a research paper titled Green Neoprene?, delve deeper into these complications.
“Like gasoline and most synthetic chemicals, the origins of butadiene for making chloroprene via Method 1 start with oil exploration and drilling. Then the crude must be transported. (Images of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, the Exxon Valdez, and birds dying in oil spills come to mind.) At the refinery, components of crude oil are broken apart and separated to make different organic compounds, including butadiene.”
Patagonia’s plan to release a line of entirely neoprene-free wetsuits will eliminate the need for petroleum during the wetsuit production process. In turn, the amount of damage done to the planet’s unreplenishable reserves will be reduced, and surfers will soon be able to feel better about their ecological footprint. This profound solution to the surfing industry’s contradictory sustainability problem was made possible by Patagonia’s partnership with the 100% plant based rubber production company Yulex.
Yulex’s mission statement is to “protect and improve the health of people and the planet by replacing petroleum-based and toxic materials with safe, plant-based speciality natural rubber and energy,” and they are doing just that by partnering with one of the largest surfing/outdoor companies in the world. The company specializes in producing all natural rubber materials through a process they call the Yulex Pure Process.
“The Yulex Pure Process removes over 99.9% of natural rubber harmful impurities, including proteins and increases its performance characteristics and physical properties (green strength, tensile, elongation, modulus, etc).”
The process begins with a plant called guayule. Southeast of Phoenix, Yulex maintains large crops of the yellowish breed, and with a little help from gene sequencing technology, the guayule grows to become the base ingredient for 100% natural rubber. After the plant is harvested, it goes through chemical treatments which extract impurities and prep the plant for its final phase. Soon, only natural rubber remains.
One of Yulex's guayule crops located in Arizona. (Image by Jesse Chehak)[/caption]
Unlike many other companies who have released a single, or limited time, environmentally friendly product, Patagonia is going all out with their 2016 line of neoprene-free wetsuits, which includes front and back zip options as well as six different temperature levels. Detailed photographs of the wetsuits have yet to have been released, but those who have seen the suits in person attest to their sleek appearance. In a leaked advertisement from Yulex and Patagonia (pictured below), one mens wetsuit from the neoprene-free line can be viewed. The wetsuits will be first available in Australia in March 2016, hitting American, European, and Japanese markets by July.
Patagonia’s effort to give neoprene the boot is inspiring from the consumer stand point, and one can only hope that competing companies will follow in their footsteps. Instead of keeping their partnership with Yulex a secret, Patagonia is sharing the technology with other brands in a push to eliminate neoprene from the surfing industry all together.
Neoprene is everywhere, used to make everything from suitcases to the fan belt on your car, so the complete elimination of the material is a little far fetched (for now). However, if neoprene-free wetsuits are able to do the same job as the wetsuits we’ve been using for decades, the surfing industry could be remarkably close to achieving singularity with nature.