They say you never forget your first wave. Up to 35 million people worldwide surf, a past-time that may be as old as the human discovery of oceans. In the cultures of the Polynesian islands, surfing was an ancient activity in which the ruling classes enjoyed the best boards and beaches.
Many surfers feel a strong sense of stewardship towards the natural habitats their passion depends on. Yet as it stands, the surfing industry is a major source of cognitive dissonance for its eco-aware consumers. Most surfboards are made from the non-biodegradable plastic polyurethane foam (PU), a fossil material that contributes to carbon emissions and ecological destruction.
Like every other fossil-based consumer product on the market today, surfboards need a re-think. In the last three years, a handful of Hawaiian and Australian manufacturers have begun to craft wooden boards made from invasive tree species, hoping to fix the industry’s plastic dependence.
Hawaiian nightmare becomes a surfer’s dream
Architect Joey Valenti and master woodmaker Eric Bell began producing wooden surfboards in 2022, selling them through the Bizia Surf shop in Oahu, Hawaii. Rather than shipping wood in from a distant forest plantation, the founders decided to use a more local and restorative feedstock: the albizia tree, an invasive species introduced to the islands from indonesia.
The Hawaii Invasive Species Council classifies the albizia as a high risk weed for good reason. It grows 15 feet per year – making it potentially the fastest growing tree in the world – and spreads quickly by dispersing large quantities of wind-dispersed seeds. Once in place, they outcompete and shade out native forest plants, removing high-quality habitat for native bird species. Hawaii now has abundant outcrops of unwelcome intruders, which have become the most noticeable invasive species on the island.
Valenti had previously spent his doctoral architectural degree studying albizia as a potential construction material so he knew its properties inside out. With Bell’s experience in board-making, the duo began sketching ideas for an albizia surfboard back in 2016.
The Bizia surfboards are sustainable at three levels. Harvesting Bizia is an ecological clean up exercise, removing a damaging species from a delicate environment. Using the species also avoids the need to cut down wild or planted trees that would best serve environmental goals like carbon uptake and habitat provision if they are left standing. Finally, the products aim to displace demand for the highly toxic petrochemical boards that still predominate in the sport.
Balsa boards from the jungles of Indonesia
Buying surfboards made from invasive trees is one of the few ways a consumer can guarantee a product did not contribute to deforestation, either to clear the way for industrial plantations or by removing wild species from native habitats.
Sustainability often depends less on the species of tree and more on the demands that growing and harvesting it places on the environment. So, while Hawaiian Albizia is a highly sustainable, locally sourced wood feedstock, the same tree taken from another ecological context may not be.
Balsa, another tree species, is a good example of this. This lightweight, fast growing wood is usually the go-to choice for making wooden surfboards. However, some balsa plantations are contributing to Amazonian rainforest loss as demand from the wind turbine ramps up its profitability.
Yet well-sourced balsa can have a environmental footprint and the tree became the feedstock of choice for Varuna Surf, founded by Australian activist and surfer Damien Cole.
Varuna Surf does not source from balsa plantations but invasive patches of the tree that are threatening to dominate habitats. The company employs Yan Young Smith who forages the Indonesian jungles for tangles of the weed-like outgrowths. Again, as with the Bizia Surf Shop, identifying raw material sources that do not compete with native habitat or more pressing end-uses is key to the sustainability profile of the final surfboard.
The advantage of balsa is that it is extremely light. On this measure, Varuna Surf’s boards usually perform much better than their wooden competitors. However, balsa is also soft, which means denting on the surface. To fix this the boards are coated in bio-based Sicomin resin that also limits UV damage.
Varuna’s vow to respect ecological limits
Cole’s inspiration to found Varuna Surf was a political one. In his words, he had become an ‘accidental activist’ in his twenties when he dropped his mining career for a course in environmental Science, diving into community organising thereafter.
Cole’s idea for the company came right after he helped organised a successful 2019-2020 campaign to oppose oil drilling in the Great Australia Bight by the Norwegian energy multinational Equinor. In 2020, the campaign got 57 communities to paddle out on surfboards in a stunt designed to train the world’s attention on the oil threat to the coastline. Solidarity paddles happened in Norway.
Yet Cole and others received criticism after this action. Their plastic boards were part of the problem they were fighting, some said, as they were made from materials that filled oil major revenues.
Cole’s response was Varuna Surf and the balsa wood board. The company has enlisted renowned surfboard makers to help them craft the products including Maurice Cole, Joel Fitzgerald, Stuart D’arcy, and Renaud Cardinal.
Varuna Surf’s canny sourcing decision to source from ecologically threatening wild balsa stocks all owes to Cole’s critical political sense and education in environmental sciences. He had initially considered sourcing his wood from a big plantation but his research quickly uncovered ties between the company and the Indonesian military. He quickly abandoned the idea, which forced him to be more creative about where to find viable stocks.
As well as this, the company plants balsa to remediate bare, over-logged areas of Indonesian forests. Once planted, they quickly form a canopy that kills off the grass on the ground allowing for diverse, shade-loving native plants to move back in. After that, the balsa is cut down.
Varuna Surf has a keen understanding of what truly sustainable business practices entails. Lauren Bos, marketing director for the company, noted in an interview the fact there will be a limit to how much it can scale.
This may be a startling admission from a small business but from an ecological perspective the strategy is watertight. Renewable materials do not open a licence to over-harvest. Just like fossil sources, they are not an infinite resource.
This is an idea Bos articulates in no uncertain terms: “Earth can only produce so much balsa, regardless of how much we’re going in and planting it ourselves and in exchange for native species”.
Paulownia surfboards: built for strength
The Paulownia is a fast-growing tree genus that is native to China can happily spread in a wide climatic range. Its robustness and rapid growth means they are classed as an invasive species in some countries. However, these same properties have led Sine Surf to choose it for their wooden boards.
Unlike Varuna Surf and Bizia Surf, Sine Surf does not harvest their timber from the wild. They use cultivated Paulownia but the species they source is a hybrid that was bred not to spread through seed dispersal. Like the other wooden board brands, however, Sine Surf replaces the polyurethane foam that normally gives boards their lightness and flotation with a hollowed-out core instead.
Sine Surf says the Paulownia occupies the ‘goldilocks zone’ for surfboards, with just the right strength and weight. It is light enough to make hollow but hard enough to prevent dents on the surface.
Paulownia has another advantage on balsa: with more strength and hardness locked up in the raw material itself, there is less need to reinforce it with fibreglass and resin. Sine Surf claims that it has cut back on the industry average for these additive materials by one third.
Surfing returns to its roots
Drawing on invasive species is a creative sourcing strategy for an industry now recognising the need to move away from plastic. Using up ecologically harmful biomass serves habitat restoration goals while avoiding the need to cut down natural forest stands.
Yet while wooden boards mark an innovation away from the practices of the modern surfboard industry, bio-based equipment is nothing new in the sport. Indigenous cultures all used wood for constructing their surfboards and the industry’s love affair with plastic started only in the last century, just as other sectors also became captivated by its cheap versatility.
Beyond showcasing the possibilities of biomaterials, the industry around surfing is particularly well-placed to inspire alternative economic relationships to the physical world more generally. Once again, this is something that resides in its historic roots.
Indigenous cultures in Hawaii, one of the global birthplaces of surfing, viewed the ocean as a deity. The sport was seen as an act of worship. A culture that places nature at its centre, rather than as an invisible externality, is much more likely to keep the environment in a habitable state.
Even today, surfing immerses people in the dynamism of nature, centering as it does around immense energetic forces that originate far out at sea and in the atmosphere. From the surfers’ vantage point, it is easy to think about the environment as being the first mover in all our lives, the source of vital though limited resources.
For these reasons, modern surfing could once again emerge as a bridge to healthier attitudes towards global ecosystems. The practices being pioneered by Varuna Surf, Bizia Surf, and Sine Surf could therefore offer a vision not just for the surfboard industry but other consumer goods sectors which, for the most part, continue to operate far beyond the planet’s ecological limits.