Surfers spend a lot of time in the ocean, coming face to face with discarded plastic bottles and other pollution. Many go on to become environmental activists. Kelly Slater, considered the greatest surfer of all time, once said: “I think when a surfer becomes a surfer, it's almost like an obligation to be an environmentalist.”
At the same time, surfboards themselves can be incredibly toxic to the environment. Since the late 1950s, they have been almost exclusively made from petroleum-based and non-recyclable materials—polyurethane foam, polyester resin, fiberglass. And surfers (who practice one of the oldest sports on the planet) are famously resistant to change, especially if it might affect their performance.
To make matters worse, surfboards take a serious beating, generally lasting no more than a few years, then ending up incinerated or in a landfill. It is estimated that 400,000 new surfboards are sold every year.
A history of aluminium “sticks”
There have been scattered attempts over the years to replace the noxious materials in surfboards with greener, recyclable alternatives, such as aluminium. Until now, a practical solution has been slow to emerge.
Perhaps the oldest existing aluminium board is on display at the Surf Museum in Torquay, Australia, a thick, riveted specimen that probably dates from the 1960s or 70s and more resembles a vintage airplane wing.
Early in this millennium, a surfer and marine engineer named Ron Hasted coated a board with an aluminium skin, but his project never took off. Other companies, such as California’s Varial Surf Technology, have experimented with using an aluminium honeycomb as a core.
In 2011, artist Rich Morrison and surfboard maker Gary Seagraves together created a functioning board from 72 beer cans (from a local bar), covered in epoxy resin. France’s Titouan LaDroitte followed in their footsteps in 2018, winning the Vissla/Surfrider Creators & Innovators Upcycle Contest, which challenges designers to make surfboards out of waste. LaDroitte created a board using 150 aluminium beverage cans with old vinyl records as fins. (It beat out another board made from 700 used Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cups.)
The Australian designer Marc Newson presented a super-luxurious version of an aluminium board in 2019, a limited-edition series exhibited at the Gagosian gallery in New York City’s art-centric Chelsea neighborhood. Slick and beautiful, the board came in a range of luminescent colors, from gold to ox-blood red. And it performed admirably, too: the big-wave surfer Garrett McNamara took one for a ride in Nazaré, Portugal.
Utopia at last?
Now Frédéric Clermont, an industrial designer and surfer from Brittany, France, is determined to disrupt the industry with a durable, high-performing surfboard made from recycled aluminium and eco-friendly wood. The name of his project: Utopik.
Clermont started thinking about his project in late 2017, after a surfing trip to Ireland, when he realized that he had to replace his equipment about every five years. Hoping to find a greener solution, he experimented with aluminium, using technology from the aeronautical industry. He successfully tested his aluminium honeycomb surfboard in January 2019. That same year, Utopik took third place at France’s Nina Awards for nautical innovation.
Clermont’s patented boards are made of minimum-95%-recycled aluminium and wood from Brittany and Spain. (He won’t reveal what kind of wood, but says it comes from non-invasive, fast-growing trees with a high CO2 absorption rate.) They contain no polyester resin, polyurethane, or fiberglass. Utopik boards are 100% recyclable, like all aluminium products, and use common technology found all over the world. They are wholly made in Brittany.
Once Clermont came up with a prototype, he launched a crowdfunding campaign and raised his goal of €4,000 in January 2020, which he says will go towards serial production of his first model. In the future, the Breton designer hopes to apply the same technology to paddleboards, kitesurfing, and windsurfing.
When it comes to sustainably surfing the seas, aluminium could be the wave of the future.