Perhaps because the sport involves riding a force of nature, surfers tend to be environmentally conscious. But the tool of their trade, the surfboard, has traditionally been anything but green.
That irony was not lost on Ryan Siegel, who has been shaping boards in Ocean Beach, Calif., for 13 years. By 2007 he was looking for an alternative to the polyurethane foam blanks made with toluene diisocyanates (TDI), which off-gas volatile organic compounds (VOCs). A friend introduced him to San Diego-based foam manufacturer Malama Composites, founded by Ned McMahon, a former surfboard shaper and marketing director for Hawaii-based board maker T&C Surf Designs.
Although officially incorporated in 2009, McMahon and his team had been working since early 2006 to make the process of manufacturing surfboard blanks cleaner and greener. They started out working with suppliers in the U.K. to replace TDI with less toxic methylene diphenyl diisocyanates (MDI) in their foam. Soon after, they experimented further by replacing the petroleum polyols used in the process with polyols derived from renewable plant-based oils, such as soy, castor and jatropha.
No one on the Malama team had a background in chemistry, McMahon says, so the process involved a lot of research and development. “We had basic knowledge of formulation, and of course we asked our suppliers questions all the time,” he says. “But frankly, a lot of it was our own testing—pouring a little bit, testing, playing some more. We had a process of running percentages. When things were going in a good direction, we’d go down that road.”
After about 12 months of testing, the team developed foam that doesn’t off-gas VOCs and can be reused or recycled. The company calls its product AinaCore, after the Hawaiian word for “Earth,” and for good reason. Malama doesn’t just use renewable resources to make its foam; it also considers the lifecycle of the materials it uses.
Siegel, who shapes boards under his own name but is affiliated with the nonprofit artist collective Sezio, started using Malama’s MDI and soy foam blanks in 2007 and estimates he has used them in 150 to 200 boards. He now uses them nearly exclusively, though he does use other blanks upon request. Both types of foam, says Siegel, who now serves as Malama’s post-production manager, have the same or better characteristics as more toxic TDI versions. The soy blanks, in particular, have better memory and resist pressure dings better than standard surfboards. The MDI blanks even have the same clean white color.