• Zero Waste Shanghai

Ocean-Plastic Surfboards. Yay or nay?

Almost a year ago, I shared my plan to drive around China to interview the Chinese changemakers and as soon as I had posted the news I received a text from someone I hadn’t heard from in a long time.


“Hey Alizée!

Such a nice and brave journey you are going to! I saw you might go to Hainan as well. I know there is a place built by three surfers in a small village where they handmade everything to build the house and try as much as they can to be zero waste. They are thinking about creating a surfing board with recycled plastic bottles. I think they are super cool and they are living a very sustainable lifestyle. If you are interested to visit them I can connect you guys!”


Perfect!, I thought, This is exactly the type of person I am looking to interview.



The concept of sustainability is quite new for many people in China, and the younger generation shows interest to be part of the change.

But change where? How do you start?


Jiawei, just like many others I have interviewed in this last year, has influenced more people than he's aware of. And like many others, we're not at the end of our thought processes when it comes to what it means to live and work sustainably.


I always say that sustainability is a young industry, and for many of us raised in modern societies it’s also a young concept. What I mean by that, is that we don’t have all the information today to forge the path to a greener future. We have a rough idea, but really, we’re taking it one step at a time, and figuring things out as we move forward. But we have to move forward.



Here we are on a sunny November afternoon, I sit down with Jiawei and a couple of friends to know more about him and his initiatives. During our conversation, I bring up the project of making surfboards from recycled plastic.


To which Jiawei replied:

“That’s a thought we had, however being environmentally friendly doesn’t make it effective enough to solve the problem. You can turn plastic into resin with which you can produce surfing boards, but plastic could also be turned into fuels. Honestly, plastic should have never existed at all.


A surfboard is filled with plastic foam and then covered by glass fiber with some glue. We could turn ocean plastic waste into new resin to make surfboards but you can also transform it into gasoline. None of these two works will stop the use and production of plastic.

What’s going to happen when you’re done using the surfboard? Still, you will throw it away. What difference does it make even if it is made from recycled plastics? Nothing, you just kept it longer and that’s all. It’s definitely feasible.”



Yes, it is definitely feasible, I reply.


The use of recycled plastic today is very widespread. Many brands promote the use of recycled materials in their products to show that they are part of the solution of reducing waste to landfills and oceans. Proof that they are willing to compromise for the sake of the planet and, of course, with the demand of their customers.


Plastic can be molded into any shape, color, density, quality … you name it. It is so *damn* convenient. This is why we find this material in our cars, our cellphones, our clothes, and pretty much everywhere else in our lives.


Honestly, if it weren’t for the horrendous impact it has when sucking it out of the soil and the pollution on our environment, plastic would be an amazing product. On top of all the above-mentioned benefits, plastic is great because if it’s good quality it can be melted back into pellets and molded again in whichever shape or form.


When it comes to surfboards it’s pretty much the same. I believe that, with the technology that is available today and what we know about plastic recycling, making surfboards from recycled plastic is definitely a possibility. But then comes the question again, what happens to the surfboards after we’re done using them. Studies show that over 20 million surfboards are sold every year, with an expected 2-year life cycle. Jiawei raised a valid point in our conversation when he said that even with the use of recycled plastic for making surfboards when we are done using them, the plastic problem persists.



So what’s next?


Jiawei also mentioned that surfboards are made from a plastic foam “pao mo“ which not only contains toxic substances but also are manufactured in a chemical harsh environment creating around 8 kg of waste per board. The surfboards are then coated with fiberglass to hold them all together.


What if we didn’t have to use plastic at all?


Recently an interesting pair, Alastair Pilley, an environmental scientist, and Emile Theau, an Australian surfer and engineer designed a 95% biodegradable and low waste manufactured surfboard. After having tried multiple prototypes, the two partners settled on Paulownia trees. These native trees gain their full maturity at 8 years old, making them one of the most sustainable woods and very efficient at seizing carbon. Besides Paulownia trees are one of the most light-weighted timbers in the world, which means the use of plastic foam is not needed anymore.



Raw materials and end-of-life cycle is one thing, but the pair also thought about the production process. They claim that their manufacturing practices are only at one-twelfth of the plastic-use compared to regular methods, less labor, curbed carbon emissions, and waste.

Consequently, this means that their overheads are lower and keep their selling price lower than their competitors.


The Paulownia trees are native to China and the Korean peninsula and have later been introduced to other parts of the world where they have been naturalized. I can already see now huge potential for surfer fanatics, because not only has this been done, but the needed resources are available locally. Some may say that we shouldn’t touch trees, that we are already deforesting rainforests that are crucial to our survival, and who needs more surfing boards anyway?



Just like Jiawei I believe that the core of the problem is the industrialization of everything that is feeding our consumerist behaviors, which has been fed by the same system that supplies it.


I would love to see our societies grow towards more local solutions, where changemakers, people like Jiawei, bring sustainable solutions to their communities who live this life of surf and simplicity. Not only do I believe that this will be more sustainable for our environment, but I also see that we invest in our communities, the people we share our small piece of the earth with.


Tune into global ideas, and act locally. Use local resources, produce with local people, sell to those around you. That is true sustainability to me. I am aware that this sounds utopic and really out there, but I can see that in the future local communities will hold much more power in these ways.


* * * * * * * *


Hey there, I am Alizée CCM. My passions are travel, nature, food (du-uh) and whatever it is that will bring us closer to a better way of co-living on this planet: inspiring people & ideas, future business models, and new ideas and technologies.

If you want to reach out, you can find me at alizee@zerowasteshanghai.com





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