Surf Science: Foam For The Planet

Foam For The Planet
Say hello to environmentally conscious foam.

Words: Michael Kew
Painting: Ash Thorpe
With issues of environmental turmoil front and center in the media, the term “green” has officially found its way into everyday consciousness. Even in our humble little surf world, folks are rethinking and redesigning one of the most non-eco products of all: surfboard blanks.
Two relatively new companies, Homeblown and Ice-Nine Foam Works, are working on more organic formulas for blanks (Ice-Nine uses sugar; Homeblown uses soy) to create what they consider to be a more eco-friendly product. “The issue is the raw products,” says Ice-Nine President John Stillman. “It has everything to do with the process of manufacturing and not much to do with the final blank.”

“With soy, we were able to get a foam that is closer to the ultra-fine cell structure with excellent compression, shear, and flex properties of the best polyurethane foams,” says Ned McMahon, U.S. general manager of Homeblown. “The life cycle of the product made from domestic organic soy has a total environmental impact that is 35- to 50-percent less than petroleum-based polyols. We want to have the percentage of sustainability as high as possible, because with a standard polyurethane blank, only a portion of the ingredients come from sustainable sources. All the rest of the materials are from unsustainable and mostly petroleum-based resources.”

If mishandled, chemicals used in making traditional blanks “can have major negative effects to personal health, primarily to those manufacturing the blanks,” says Todd Proctor of Proctor Surfboards in Ventura, California, “and to the environmental air quality if not burned properly during the manufacture process.”
Stillman says this isn’t the same with alternative foam formulas. As for performance, Stillman claims the sugar foam compares to traditional template, if not better. “In some hard testing we did of properties against samples of Clark Foam,” he says, “we found that many of the standard properties we look at—tensile, elongation, and density—were quite comparable. But sugar-based blanks have greater flex then Clark’s foam—a piece of the sugar foam could be bent further than the same size piece of Clark before they each snapped.”

Rumors of other eco friendly solutions abound, and Proctor says he’s working on one of his own. “We are working on a very unique environmentally friendly, non-toxic to produce, recyclable surfboard system of our own design,” he says. “This system also utilizes performance enhancing properties that tap further into the manipulation of specific flex characteristics of the materials.” But we’ll have to write more about that one later, as Proctor notes, “this system has not yet been released to the public.”

While these alternative materials aren’t completely harmless by any means (most still contain a small amount of petroleum and a laundry list of other chemicals you probably can’t pronounce), proponents of the new technology claim they boast an impact that’s much less of a long-term hazard on the environment. “There is a great knee-jerk response to the term ‘green’ these days,” says Stillman. “The most positive implication for the industry, though, is the fact that there are more varieties of foam being sold. Shapers and riders will have more choices and a greater ability to reflect their personality, ethic, and philosophy in their choice of boards and components.”

Originally published in the September, 2007 Issue of Transworld SURF.