The Guide to Sustainable Surfing

You paddle out on a warm, sunny morning. The lineup is empty. Chest-high set waves break one after another, and you have them all to yourself.

You get into the first wave – you glide across the water as you make your way down the face. Surely, there’s nothing harmful about this moment, right?

Well… aside from the surfboard with the massive carbon footprint, neoprene wetsuit, toxic surf wax, and plastic leash, no. 

As surfers, we often consider ourselves ocean stewards. We advocate for the protection of the beaches, animals, and oceans that we call home. 

But, our gear says otherwise. Made from non-renewable resources that emit harmful emissions and are prone to short lifespans, surfers might be doing more harm than good… for now.

It’s quite ironic, isn’t it? We’re vocal about protecting the planet while actively buying products that damage the environment.

But, we’re getting better. We’re using more sustainable materials and less energy, all while still advocating for the ocean’s protection.

So if conditions are improving, there’s a burning question at the core of every responsible surfer. 

surfing point break in el salvador

Is surfing sustainable?

The short answer is yes, surfing is sustainable. 

With the right gear and habits, it’s sustainable for the planet and the community as a whole.

But it’s important to understand a few things: What makes surfing so harmful to the environment? Are there better alternatives? And how can I be a more sustainable surfer?

So let’s dive in. 

Surfboards are bad for the planet

Modern performance boards are made from fiberglass or epoxy, built for speed & flexibility. 

Fiberglass boards are made from a polyurethane core and wrapped in fiberglass. This process involves the use of toxic chemicals like styrene and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs contribute to ground-level smog and cause a number of health effects, which is part of the reason why shapers wear masks & respirators whenever they shape a new board. 

Epoxy boards are made from a polystyrene foam core and covered with an epoxy resin. Though less toxic, their production process still leaves a big carbon footprint. 

Boardshorts, bikinis, and wetsuits are killing the oceans

It’s no surprise that neoprene is terrible for the environment. The production of the petroleum-based material indirectly supports the oil industry. 

Some wetsuit manufacturers have tried limestone neoprene. It is less energy-intensive, but only slightly. 

Not to mention, neither of these materials can be recycled once worn down.

If you live in a warm climate and you’re fortunate enough not to own a wetsuit, you’re probably rocking a fresh pair of boardshorts or a stylish bikini.

And up until recently, these haven’t been so great for the planet either. Traditional swimwear is made from a blend of spandex, polyester, and nylon, all of which are petroleum-based. 

Traveling leaves the biggest footprint

There’s not a much better feeling than leaving for a surf trip. After hours of planning, packing, and traveling, it’s finally time to catch some waves. 

As surfers, we’re always chasing that remote location or big swell. But we rarely stop to think about how much of an impact that kind of travel has on the planet. 

According to Carbon Independent, each passenger creates just over 100 g of CO2 emissions per kilometer traveled. If you only take one or two flights per year, that’s not so bad. But we all know that 1 surf trip each year is simply not enough.

Accessories to a “crime”

Surf wax, leashes, stomp pads, board bags… the list goes on. There’s a new accessory that we just “have” to buy every season. 

Surf wax is another petroleum-based product with a large carbon footprint, despite its small size. Leashes are usually made from urethane, another synthetic material that produces large amounts of emissions. And that new traction pad may look great, but it’s made from a plastic & oil-based EVA type foam. 

Please, not the clothing too

Surely the everyday fashion sense of the modern surfer can’t be bad for the environment, right? Wrong.

The fashion industry accounts for 10% of all global emissions. And in an effort to cut costs and increase performance, many brands use polyester blends for a strong, lightweight construction. 

So not only are the clothes made from an oil-based material, but when washed, they break down into small microplastics.

We don’t need to remind you how bad microplastics are. 

But, not all hope is lost. Despite a damaging past, there’s hope for a sustainable future in surfing. 

How to be a more sustainable surfer

We’re all done with the bad news, I promise. Along with the rest of the world, the surf community has become more responsible. We’re focused on protecting the oceans that provide wave after wave. 

There’s a massive sustainable movement across the entire industry, with pro surfers leading the charge with ocean conservation organizations and eco-friendly brands. 

Surfboards are getting better

Sustainable Surf created the ECOBOARD Project, an industry-backed movement towards better materials and practices. The goal is to reduce and ultimately eliminate the environmental impact of surfing.

They’ve partnered with global brands like Firewire and Channel Islands to help you build, buy, and ride your next sustainable board. 

One of our personal favorites is Ry Harris Shapes, the first zero waste surfboard manufacturer in the world. They’ve officially closed the loop on surfboard production with their Zero Waste Initiative

If you’re new to surfing or just like throwing down on a beater every once in a while, you probably own a foam surfboard. They may lack in the performance category, but they’re way better for the environment. 

On average, they produce just half of the carbon emissions of a similarly sized fiberglass board. Plus, they’re way cheaper. 

If you really don’t want to ride a foamie, check out your local shop for a used board. Minus a few dings & scratches, you can grab a high-performance board for half the price. 

Now, don’t rush to go pick up a new eco-friendly board yet. Make the most out of the quiver you have, then turn it into an art project, donate it to a local organization, or sell it at a discounted price. Then grab an eco-friendly stick, foamie, or second-hand board from your local shop.

Swimwear is getting better too

If you don’t own a pair of boardshorts or a bikini made from sustainable materials, you must be living under a rock.

All of the top brands are making their newest bikinis, boardshorts, and wetsuits from sustainable materials like recycled plastic, upcycled coconuts, and natural rubber.

Forward-thinking brands like Patagonia & Vissla have done away with traditional neoprene and switched to Yulex®, a natural rubber made from FSC®-certified forests.

If you get to surf in warm water every day, how does it feel to be god’s favorite? 

Jokes aside… everyone is jumping on the recycled plastic wave (pun intended). Fabrics like REPREVE® turn plastic waste into high-performance fibers that are designed to fit comfortably and stretch with your body, even in the heaviest waves.

So next season when you’re looking to upgrade your look in the lineup, check out some of these eco-friendly options.

Even the accessories have stepped up their game

Most surf wax brands have started to make the transition to eco-friendly surf wax. One of our favorites is Matuna’s, made from organic, biodegradable materials. It’s even packaged in recycled paper and decorated with recycled ink.

If you’re more of the DIY type, you can make organic surf wax at home.

All you need is beeswax and coconut oil. For cold water wax, you’ll also need tree sap. 

Heat 3 parts beeswax and 1 part coconut oil (and tree sap for cold water surfing) on low to medium heat. Gently stir until all ingredients are evenly mixed, then pour into Tupperware and let the wax cool for a few hours. After that, you’re ready to wax your board. 

Picking the right leash is hard – Sympl makes it easy. Their ReLeashº is made from recycled plastic bottles and a durable, non-toxic coating. 

Don’t worry about it holding up, it’s resistant to scratches, sunlight, salt water, and the normal wear & tear from a day in the water. And, it’s shipped in recycled & biodegradable packaging.

Whatever surf accessory you’re looking for, there’s definitely an eco-friendly option out there. 

Travel lighter

We’re not telling you to stop taking surf trips to protect the planet. We’re just telling you to be a bit more conscious when traveling.

If you’re going for a quick dawn patrol session or joining the weekend warriors, ditch the car. Walk, bike, or take public transportation to the beach instead. If you’re too far from the beach for those options, grab a few friends and carpool to save on gas. 

For your annual surf trip, take a couple-hour drive to a break you haven’t surfed yet and camp out for a few days. It’s going to be a hell of an experience, and you’ll leave a minimal carbon footprint.

Been preparing for a big trip to the South Pacific, Central America, or somewhere else across the globe? Cover up that footprint with carbon offsets and stay in an eco-friendly surf resort to minimize your impact.

Surf Style

Brands like OuterKnown and Florence Marine X have popularized highly technical surf gear that is responsibly made. 

Looking to shop local? There’s a good chance that your local shop has plenty of sustainably-made lifestyle wear. 

At KeAloha, we’re all about eco-friendly surf apparel. Our gear is made from a blend of recycled plastic and organic cotton. And, we donate 10% of each purchase to global ocean conservation efforts. 

So next time you’re looking to pick up some new threads for the beach or a day of traveling, grab something that helps out the planet and protects the ocean.

With a conscious mindset, the future of surfing is sustainable. With widespread adoption, surfers can become effective ocean stewards, all while enjoying the waves and minimizing their environmental impact.