I talk about plastic pollution. A lot. But one thing I don’t often touch on is actually one of the biggest offenders — polystyrene, or as you probably know it, styrofoam. According to the Environmental Production Agency, styrofoam is the fifth largest source of hazardous waste in the United States.
The production, use and disposal of styrofoam can have harmful effects for both the environment and on our health. Styrofoam is made of Benzene and Styrene, both of which are known human carcinogens. The production of styrofoam is also energy intensive, creating large amounts of greenhouse gases and damage to the ozone layer.
It can be recycled, but most recycling plants will not accept it due to its lightweight nature and the high economic cost of transporting and degreasing the petroleum-based material (according to the California Department of Conservation, the cost of recycling styrofoam amounts to $3000 per single ton.)
Because it is not recycled, it is usually sent to landfill, where it takes at least five hundred years to decompose. Or, because of its light weight, it is easily blown or washed into our waterways. Styrofoam is the number one source of urban litter and the main pollutant of oceans, bays and other U.S. water sources. Annually, over 5 billion pounds of styrofoam end up in our landfills and waterways.
Once it’s in the waterways, styrofoam tends to absorb many other pollutants in the sea like DDT and oil due to its porous nature. And similar to other plastics (maybe even more so), the styrofoam usually breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Then those small contaminated particles are then consumed by plankton, small fish and other sea life, often becoming part of the food chain.
Waste To Waves is out to help change all of this.
Waste To Waves, a program started by Sustainable Surf, is out to recycle different waste materials into new “eco-friendlier” surfing products. And with their current campaign, “Turn Your Trash Into Slash,” they aim to recycle waste packaging foam (aka styrofoam) into new surfboard blanks.
“The surfboard is the iconic symbol of our sport. Without the surfboard, surfing wouldn’t exist,” says Kevin Whilden, co-founder of Sustainable Surf. “And the surfboard is also seen as one of the most toxic vehicles in action sports.”
Surfboards, for those unfamiliar, are made with foam. They can be made from polyurethane or polystyrene, which is the kind that is used for foam packaging. So by recycling this type of foam to make new boards, Waste to Waves hopes to be part of the solution.
“By using recycled foam and bio-based epoxy resins, we can make a surfboard that has a much reduced impact on both people and planet,” says Whilden. “By using Waste To Waves, we actually solve the problem of how to deal with that foam in a very fun and exciting way. You’re actually making a surfboard from that foam.”
So how does it all work? Right now Waste To Waves’ program operates in select surf shops in Southern and Northern California (you can check out their drop off locations here). They set up collection bins at these shops where you can drop off all of your styrofoam packaging and they’ll take over from there.
After it goes to the bins, Waste To Waves takes the foam to their program partner, Marko Foam. At Marko, the foam goes through a densifier that breaks the foam into pieces, melts the foam into a semi-liquid, and then spits out a brick of recycled foam. That brick is then sent to their raw materials supplier where it is reprocessed into recycled content foam that they use for blanks.
The blanks are then shaped by shapers into surfboards. Twenty pounds of foam can be recycled into about five surfboard blanks. By 2014 (two years after the program’s inception), the company estimated that Marko Foam had sold 1,000 blanks to shapers and recycled over 40,000 pounds of foam.
Through all of this, Waste To Waves is able to produce surf boards that have been tested by the best shapers and surfers in the industry and deemed on par with anything that’s out there. Their process not only allows them to create blanks that have no degradation or loss of strength (I’m not a surfer, but I’m told this is important, I guess people don’t want their boards to break easily or something?), but they also reduce the foam’s lifecycle carbon dioxide emissions by 50%. And best of all, the styrofoam never ends up in landfills or on beaches.