Eco-Friendly Surfboards: A simple cost benefit analysis

It’s the quest for a more sustainable board.  Many surfboard companies and blank producers are looking towards creating boards made of natural and renewable materials, or at least using resources that are more environmentally friendly than the traditionally toxic surfboard-making materials.  
Ocean Green Surfboards is a company that exemplifies this type of outlook demonstrated by their use of a hollow balsa construction and hemp or cotton cloth instead of fiberglass.  It seems fitting to ride something pure and birthed straight from the Earth, since our playground is the natural ocean setting.  
But, the reality of the bottom line sets in and begs the question: Is buying an eco-friendly board a viable option for the consumer?  Is it worth it in a cost benefit scenario?
The following analysis explores balsa constructions, along with bamboo boards – only two of the many alternatives to the polyurethane/polyester combo – examining several aspects of those boards, and looking at several of the key considerations that go into purchasing a surfboard, excluding shape and fin configuration which vary from board to board. 

More durability and a longer lifespan are among the strongest selling points of boards made solely of balsa, whether being hollow or not.  Balsa boards don’t flex in the way other types of boards do, meaning that they tend not to show stress marks.  They are also more resistant to dings and to pressure placed on the deck.
Bamboo is said to have a weight for weight ratio twice the strength of fiberglass and six times the strength of steel.  That’s why it has caught the attention of the skateboard and surfboard industries.  In most constructions, a bamboo laminate is used to replace the fiberglass cloth, creating a sort of shell around a foam core.  Gary Young, who has been working with bamboo since the 1980’s, wrote, “Wood and bamboo have degrees of structural integrity before resin impregnation whereas fiberglass does not.”

Balsa boards are typically pretty hefty when it comes to weight—that’s why they are generally used for guns.  But through a little R&D, some shapers have been able to come up with lightweight solution.  Gary Linden has developed a stunning balsa board that weighs no more than 6 pounds 1 ounce.
In addition to strength, bamboo is extremely lightweight.  The boards lack a conventional stringer and are typically 15% lighter than conventional boards. Gary Young prefers to use extruded polystyrene blanks, which are also lighter than polyurethane blanks.

Balsa boards are generally stiffer than the typical polyurethane board.  They are known to be faster because they are heavier and carry their momentum, not dissipating energy when they hit chop.  But being stiffer means that you lose out in maneuverability and lack the flex found in other boards.  Bamboo boards, on the other hand, have their weight and strength distributed away from the center creating an amazing rail-to-rail flex as well as its nose-to-tail flex.  This translates to a “directive spring back” effect, creating more response for snappy turns.  Also, bamboo boards have a greater aerial potential thanks to their lightweight quality.

This is another benefit of the balsa and bamboo boards.  They are gorgeous.  With the grains in the balsa wood or the actual fibers of the bamboo actually visible, these boards have an aesthetic quality unmatched by the generically white polyurethane boards.  Just take a look at the balsa boards from Ocean Green Surfboards or Linden Surfboards or a bamboo board from Gary Young to judge the aesthetic value for yourself.

Image and Accessibility
Most of us don’t like to admit it, but more than a board’s performance goes into our board buying decision.  The surfboard industry is undoubtedly image-driven.  People know a company like Channel Islands and see pros winning contests with their boards.  Balsa and bamboo boards have not achieved widespread appeal in that respect in today’s surfing scene. 
But the image factor can actually be a benefit for green boards.  Riding a balsa or bamboo board can be a reflection of personal values.  Not to mention, they are great conversation pieces.
Accessibility is another issue.  This is what we would call an opportunity cost, or what you give up to pursue one course of actions.  In this case it would be the time and effort spent researching balsa or bamboo boards, which are less prevalent than generic polyurethane boards found at any surf shop.  

In a cost benefit analysis this is what we would call the initial cost.  And it is a big consideration when it comes to most eco-friendly boards, which are typically more expensive.  For a Gary Linden balsa board you could be looking at anywhere from $1,500 for a shortboard to $5,000 for a longboard.  A Jim Phillips original or restored classic , though impressive, could cost you anywhere from $3,000 to $25,000.  Bamboo boards are actually not as costly as some might expect.  A Gary Young Bamboo board goes for $100 per foot of board meaning that a six-foot board would cost you around $600.

Net Gain
Coming to a conclusion involves weighing all the costs against the benefits.  But in this situation, because the categories are not easily quantifiable, personal priority will have to determine the value of each individual aspect.  What is the most important aspect for your surfboard?  Is it price? Lifespan? Feel?  Or, it may just be, that the eco-friendly attribute has enough value to swing a decision towards a balsa or bamboo board.

Should there be environmental considerations when buying a surfboard?

“Well, I hate to say it, but in today’s technology, there is no truly marketable green board.
When we can produce an environmental surfboard on a mass level, it will be more viable.  
As technology advances, there will be more options.” Tim Bessell, Bessell Surfboards

“People should buy their boards from a country that has high environmental regulations.  They should consider where the materials are coming from and what conditions the board is made in.” Tim Townsley, TNT Surfboards 

“I think people should take environmental factors into consideration.  I think there are better ways of doing things with better materials that are less toxic…The biggest way to make change is to vote with your dollars.” Gary Young, Gary Young Equipment

“I think if you try to have the mindset to go totally green, I don’t think it will be a very good performance board.  Not yet.” Jim Phillips, Jim Phillips Surfboards

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