Student's Sustainable Surf Research Creates Industry Waves

Story posted April 14, 2008

Send a surfer to Australia for a semester and you'd expect him to come back with a great tan and tales of ten-foot waves. But Sean Sullivan '08 took away much more than that.

Sullivan Talk
Sean Sullivan '08 addresses the crowd. Barry Alsop photo.

The art history major capped his Off-Campus Study experience with a unique independent study project on the environmental impact of the surfboard industry. When it was published on the Web site of Australia's biggest surf organization, it shot Sullivan to the forefront of an international debate and earned him a place at the podium as keynote speaker at a major international surf summit held in Australia in March 2008. Read article.

"How am I, this 20-something year old, supposed to tell these industry legends who have been shaping surfboards since before I was born, how to do their business?" he said. "I had to find a delicate balance between not pointing a finger at anyone and challenging them. I'm not saying there weren't some cringes."

Sullivan didn't plan to create his own wave when he headed out for his junior semester abroad. He said he just "wanted the opportunity to study something new," when he chose the School for International Training's (SIT) Sustainability in the Environment program in New South Wales, Australia.

Sullivan on Beach
Sullivan on the beach at Noosa Heads, in Queensland, Australia.

While he did take advantage of the world-class surfing in Australia, it wasn't until he was faced with doing a required independent study project that he stumbled on the idea of combining his love of surfing with sustainability research. In conversations with his advisor and others he had met there, he became aware that the sport he loves, and the surfboard he uses, have serious environmental consequences. He began digging for information.

"For one-and-a-half months, I focused my entire life on this project," said Sullivan. "My project was all primary source research, networking, interviewing, surveying."

Sullivan interviewed the gamut of surfboard builders, or "shapers"—from those using typical toxic materials to a few attempting other, greener methods. He also spent days on the beach interviewing surfers to gauge their level of awareness of the environmental impact of surfboards, and their level of desire to see the industry change. Some surfers were generally aware that the materials used in surfboards are not environmentally friendly, but few knew specifically why. About half said they would be interested in a more eco-friendly product.

"Surfing has the image of a very pure sport," Sullivan wrote in his report. "Although a surfer may leave no trace on the face of a crashing wave, the environmental impacts of surfboard construction are leaving a lasting impression on the natural environment. The largely unspoken truth is that the construction of the modern surfboard involves the use of harmful petrochemicals and processes that result in dangerous by-products harmful to both the surfboard builder and the environment."

Board
A wooden board takes shape inside the Noosa workshop of shaper and professional surfer Tom Wegener.

The original surfboards dating back hundreds of years were solid wood and beastly heavy. For the past 50 years, boards have been made of much lighter but less durable materials: the core is polyurethane foam covered in fiberglass cloth followed by repeated layers of liquid polyester resin, which is sanded smooth. The process releases ozone-depleting carbon dioxide and carcinogenic volatile organic compounds, which are released into the air and can contaminate groundwater. Inroads have been made recently, with the development of "bio-foam" and other less toxic materials; some shapers are even returning to wood, but the vast majority of surfboards are still far from "green."

Sullivan's research ultimately was published on the Coastalwatch homepage and has been read by thousands of people. Still, he was stunned when he was invited back to Australia to present his findings as the keynote speaker at the 2008 Noosa Festival of Surfing. His March 2008 presentation was attended by the CEOs of the world's biggest surf companies—Billabong, Quiksilver and Rip Curl, which jointly control 50 percent of the $10 billion surf industry—and what event organizers say was the largest gathering of surfing world champions ever assembled, 11 in all.

"It was great, as there were a few shapers and industry reps who were visibly uncomfortable," said Chris Tola, national chairman of Surfrider, a non-profit ecological group represented at the conference.

"Some of these people have never really thought about this," added Sullivan. "It's a wake-up moment for them. There's a huge reluctance to try new technologies."

Most of the audience was receptive, however. Tola was heartened by the fact that after his talk, Sullivan was constantly approached by people interested in his work. "The majority were seen to be heading in the right direction," Tola said.

Sullivan in Panel
Sullivan, far right, with panelists (r-l) surfboard manufacturer Bob McTavish; Mark Kelly, CEO of Global Surf Industries; surfing legend Terry Fitzgerald; and Mark Richards, four-time world champ. Barry Alsop photo.

Sullivan is now trying to organize a design contest to develop an environmentally sustainable surfboard. He envisions it as a "global board build-off," where shapers would be funded to spend a week assessing their business model and figuring out ways to make a better model with less of an environmental impact.

"It would culminate in an exhibition with pro surfers riding these things," he said. "Then we could auction off the boards for charity, or it could become some kind of touring event."

Sullivan acknowledges that you can't change a whole industry overnight, but he is anxious to get the process moving.

"People did take me seriously when they saw the level of research I did," he said. "Now I want to put this stuff into action."

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