The quest for an environmentally friendly paddleboard.
Environmentally friendly paddleboards are difficult to find.
In the summer I, alongside thousands of others in the UK, bought a paddleboard. In fact I bought three, hoping to catch up with some of the unexpected demand I was receiving. I bought second hand inflatables and before the end of summer, all three of them needed repairing. In the last, an elusive air bubble couldn't be found at source and so a decision was made to put the board down.
It got me thinking "well, what am I supposed to do with it now?" I couldn't upcycle it because of the thousands of dropstiches holding the deck to the base. I couldn't face putting it into landfill. In the end I took the more convenient approach of leaving it with my repair guy who said he could use it to help people understand how the insides of paddleboards work!
BCP have rightly declared a climate emergency. Like many others, I am trying to take that seriously and attempting where I can to make the adjustments in my personal and professional life (though my wife Mim is much better at it than me). I have a niggle in my stomach about the watersports industry at large. One reason that many of us enjoy watersports so much is because it helps us feel closer to the earth and it's elements. The irony is that in general, most of the products and process that help us get there, aren't green at all. This year, in Poole alone, there were not hundreds but thousands of inflatable paddleboards being sold. I am glad that some companies have survived and even been able to thrive this year. I'm glad too that so many more people would have taken delight in getting on the water. I'm also aware that there will be implications for the earth when all these boards reach their end of life.
The good news is that many watersports companies have in recent years begun to take up the challenge and have made commitments to providing more environmentally sustainable approaches in their businesses. It's not a fringe question anymore about trying to appease a small, loud, green subsection of watersports enthusiasts, but the conversation is maturing into how we take sustainable processes into the mainstream.
Which paddleboard to choose?
There are a bunch of challenges which face paddleboard manufacturers. Consumers want them to be easy to use, easy to carry, high performance and affordable. We now also want them to be good for the planet.
Composite boards are made similarly to surfboards. The better ones have a foam core which is then protected by an epoxy resin. They can be made tall and thin for touring or they can make the rails thin out at the end for catching waves. They are usually the board of choice for intermediates and experts who know what they want to get out of their board. The difficulty is that they are big and can be difficult to manage.
More recently, the sales of PVC boards have sky rocketed. The invention of PVC has solved most of the challenges arising from composite boards. They pack down small, can be carried in a ruck sack and are much less expensive. Surely we were onto something there?
The problem with PVC
PVC is the most remarkable material. It is light, cheap, mouldable, flexible, extremely tough, resistant to other chemicals and durable. The construction, automobile and healthcare industries heavily rely on it. We see it everywhere. We make roughly 50 million tonnes of it every year. For me, it means sexy paddleboards, kayaks and other inflatables which roll up nice and tight, fit in our car boot, keep for years and save room in our garage.
The problem is that both at production and at end of life, PVC is bad for the earth. The two main ingredients that go into it are chlorine, and ethylene which is obtained from oil. When we make, use or burn a chemical which contains chlorine we release dioxins into the air. Dioxins are persistent environmental pollutants. They are toxic. They cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system and can be carcinogenic. Chlorine is responsible for a big portion of the worlds dioxin burden in the air, the water and the food chain. and it is PVC production which is largely responsible for our thirst for Chlorine in the first place.
To add to this, PVC is useless on its own. It has to become friends with other nasties like plastisizers, additives and phthalates to make it do what we want it to do. It's these additives that at the end of it's life become difficult to separate and recycle. It was so difficult that untill a short while ago the most effective way to deal with waste PVC was to burn it. Incineraters blasted more dioxins back into the atmosphere than were created when they made the stuff in the first place. Now though, companies like Recovinyl are making real progress researching much more efficient ways of sorting and recycling PVC. Last year the UK and Europe recycled 700,000 tonnes of it, having worked up from scratch in 2000.
One more particular challenge to me is that we are less willing to share our inflatable paddleboards because of the risk of them getting punctured. It's easier for someone to share a solid plastic board or kayak than to share a paddleboard which could get punctures. One point to private ownership. No points to community sharing.
Towards a more sustainable sup
I'm not saying this to guilt trip. I'm aware of my personal inconsistencies. I'm trying to highlight the problems of PVC from a home which enjoys modern plumbing and cabling. I have bought more paddleboards and kayaks in this last year than many people will do in a lifetime. But I do want to celebrate the ways in which we can move forward with our lifestyle choices.
There are plenty of standup paddleboard choices out there now which are moving towards a more environmentally friendly approach. In 2012 the ECOboard project was launched encouraging surfboard and paddleboard manufacturers to earn a level one or a gold standard by producing high performance boards incorporating greener materials and methods into their board making processes. If you are conscious about putting the planet first, then look out for boards displaying their level 1 or gold standard.
Starboard among many others are equipping their paddles, fins and hard boards with non-toxic, plant based resin. When you buy a paddleboard from them, they even provide a "trash picker" (which looks like a little finger) to pick up litter from the water when you're out paddling. Solace are making boards out of hemp, cork and bamboo. Infinity SUP are a company dedicating themselves to the sustainable manufacturing of paddleboards focussing on 100% waste reduction. They are one of the few companies producing gold standard ecoboards.
These are just a few of many companies out there who are putting the planet first with greener, more environmentally friendly processes and ingredients. There is an old, recurring issue with all of these boards though.
You guessed it. They won't fit in a car boot.
A modular paddleboard?
More recently a third kind of environmental paddleboard has emerged on the market. Neither single composite nor an inflatable board. It's a hard board but split into three pieces which attach with simple clips. Introducing the Easy Eddie.
Pretty cool eh? The boards are made from high density polyethylene which is 100% recyclable, light and incredibly strong. They assemble in minutes. They fit in a car. What's not to like? Well, perhaps the price still. They retail for same prices as some of the other ecoboard brands. We have applied for some grant funding this year. Were we to be successful, these would be the boards we would invest in. This, I think is the best shot I have seen at someone making a board with the planet in mind, which is still (vaguely) affordable and can fit in the car. What do you think? Would you like to try one out? Seen anything better?
And who knows, if the modular idea takes off perhaps we'll see even greener ways of making them soon....