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...

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