Surfers test cost-effective way to recycle styrofoam

January 20, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
It's estimated that as much as a quarter of the space in U.S. disposal sites is taken up by styrofoam. The stuff lasts just about forever, and it's difficult to recycle in a cost effective way. But a pilot program, started by surfers, could change that.

Surfers depend on a clean healthy ocean, but a lot of beaches are littered with trash and one of the biggest problems is styrofoam.

"It just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces and it gets consumed by animals and sea life and winds up in the food stream, which winds up oftentimes on our plates," says Adam Weiner with the Surfrider Foundation.

"It's basically oil in a different form, sitting on the beach," says Michael Stewart, one of the founders of Sustainable Surf, a new organization trying to get surfers and the surf industry to go green.

One of their first projects focuses on styrofoam, the kind often used to pack electronics.

"The technical name for this kind of foam is called EPS, expanded polystyrene," explains Stewart. "It's the exact same material that is in these 100 percent recycled surf blanks."

Blanks are the core of a surf board. Experts, called shapers, carefully carve them to get the performance they want on different types of waves. Most blanks are made of new styrofoam. But now a company called Marko in Southern California is using recycled foam for their blanks.

Shaper James Mitchell in San Francisco says it's a great product.

"If it didn't have this skin on it and say e-blank on it, I probably wouldn't know the difference, which to me is what I want," says Mitchell.

Sounds great, but there's a serious problem. It costs a lot of money to collect styrofoam and get it to a recycling facility. It may be lightweight, but it takes up a lot of room.

"It's about 90 percent air," says Stewart. "So you are basically trucking around air."

That's where Sustainable Surf comes in. They've organized a pilot program with business partners and volunteers to move the styrofoam cheaply. Starting in November, they put collection boxes at surf shops and a few other locations in San Francisco and Santa Cruz. Sponsors paid for the materials and customers started bringing in foam right away.

"This bin is full now and we have a few more bags ready to go as well," says Jen Grimm with Sports Basement. "So the response has been really, really good."

Volunteers pick up the foam and store it at an office in the Presidio. The last step is made possible by the owner of Action Sports Express.

"He has a business that transports surfboards and kayaks from Southern California up to Northern California," says Stewart.

Trucks used to go home empty, but now they carry styrofoam to the Marko factory to be recycled. The program has been such a success, Sustainable Surf hopes to expand with more collection sites and more companies using recycled styrofoam.

"I think there's a lot of people conscious about buying recycled products," says Jake Johnson of Aqua Surf Shop. "So to have that option for a person is good."

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney.