HOW MANY WETSUITS HAVE YOU GOT?
RESPONSIBLE RESOURCING IS KEY FOR ALL COMPANIES NOW. HERE’S A LOOK AT SOME SURF CO’S WITH BIG IDEAS...
I can guarantee every surfer who reads this has at least four old wetsuits hanging about in the spare room, garage or shed all awaiting the day or an old friend, in fact anyone, comes along and asks, 'Can I borrow a wetsuit?'
The reason being, we all have them, and none of us know what to do with them when they have had their day. They still have worth to us, having kept us warm and inspiring endless stoked sessions we know their value, and we also know we don’t want to put them pointlessly in landfill. So what the hell are we going do with them?
It's a question I have been asking any wetsuit design or brand manager I can get near to for the last three or four years. Responses I have had stretch from 'No one gives a damn' to 'You can insulate your loft with them if you want?'
There have been a lot of small scale recycling efforts by creators around the world repurposing suits into beer stubby holders, mats, even sending them to refugees. Which is all well and good, and indeed a noble gesture, but no one has the final answer to the question: 'How do you reuse neoprene and make it a truly circular nonpolluting product?'
Three companies that are trying to make a difference are Rip Curl, Patagonia and Finisterre. Patagonia have done great things pushing Yulex and organic fair trade natural rubber both to the consumer and to the surf industry in an attempt to make our wetsuit industry cleaner. While initiatives weren't initially broadly taken up, they did provoke widespread investigation by many brands and now you have natural rubber appearing in lines of brands like Quik, Vissla, Picture to name a few. But the question of 100 percent recyclable product hasn't been solved.
Rip Curl’s ‘Resurrection' programme launched in 2008 and still ongoing is probably the largest neoprene recycling programme in the surf industry, but the idea hasn’t been widely taken up by other industry brands.
Wilco Prins, CEO of Ripcurl Europe told me, 'I know how hard it is to get other people involved. When we opened up the programme
through Eurosima to other brands, there was no interest at all from any of them. We then decided to continue working on it ourselves and set up the chain between our factory in Thailand and a shoe factory in Indonesia for the cut offs. The real big steps we made here though is when we tried to be more efficient in the cutting and started using the cut offs for little accessories such as stubbie holders etc. The written off neoprene in our factory is turned into changing mats which we sell in our stores. This is obviously a part that no other brand cares about unfortunately, because none of them have a factory.
That is one part of the solution. The other part concerns the used suits. Locally in Europe, our first initiative was turning the neoprene into outsoles for espadrilles. Everything was done locally, but in the end there were too many espadrilles! The next initiative was turning the wetsuits into bracelets and we still do this and sell them on the counter of our stores. But you can make a lot of bracelets out of a wetsuit.
Our latest project, which we are finalising is looking very promising. It will allow us to transform the wetsuits into yoga mats. This will be a good solution, which will consume a lot of neoprene.
The real solution will be the eventual replacement of neoprene with a durable alternative. We've had someone working on this for 15 years now, but we are not close yet.'
While Finisterre are relatively new to the wetsuit market, launching in 2014, their approach has been to build a solid suit that will last many seasons, thus increasing its useful life span. The idea is that if you build longevity into a product you cut down the need to replace it, saving raw materials and waste.
At the press launch I asked Tom, 'Have you worked on any ways to recycle wetsuits?'
I kind of caught him out of leftfield. He had come to launch a new wetsuit not to get dragged off message into the murky world of what happens to dying neoprene. But we had a quick discussion and in a room of 10 press, four Finisterre key staff, and PR manager we had over 50 old wetsuits. Multiply that by the surfing population of Cornwall, Devon, the North East and Wales, the UK ... Europe ... Tom got it and it got him thinking: How do you stop wetsuits from ending up in landfill?
Unless we complete the circle and find a use for the old neoprene, no matter how long we extend its life in our terms, it is still going to end up in a dump slowly breaking down over hundreds of years. Over the last three years Tom has been thinking about the problem. The result? The roll out of a knowledge transfer programme partnering with the science gurus at University of Exeter and £50,000 backing for a two-year contract for a dedicated materials engineer. The idea is to find a solution and hopefully join the dots so it is possible to produce new wetsuits from old wetsuits.
It’s an open ended project that has only one aim, and no constraints, it is purely set up to deal with neoprene at molecular level and save it from landfill.
At this moment in time no one really knows what the project will open up, or how far it will go, or indeed where the solution will come from. All anyone knows is there has to be a way, and we need to find it.
Right now in the plastics industry about one third of plastics are recyclable, which is disheartening. However scientists in Europe are working on a chemical process that will make all plastic 100 percent reusable. Imagine that?
Now imagine a similar solution and all that valuable neoprene being used as raw material. No more landfill, endless supplies of raw materials... And while mechanical costs may be more than producing virgin new material at first, those costs will come down with economies of scale in the same way solar power production is.
The really cool thing about this is that the global neoprene market is huge. Technical rubbers, adhesives and latex utilised by end-users in automotive, manufacturing, construction, consumer goods and medical companies.
In the bigger picture the surf industry use is actually pretty small. But if surfers solve the problem of neoprene reuse at a molecular level, they will also solve a global industrial problem.
If we all support the initiatives from Resurrection to #wetsuitsfromwetsuits and take up the new greener offerings from the brands we can lead the way in circular economics around the globe.
Surfers leading the way in the greening of dirty global industry? Now where have we heard that before?
Let's do this...