In Hawai’i, early surfboards were made of lightweight woods like breadfruit and balsa, sanded smooth with coral and rubbed to a black finish with tree roots or bark. Completely natural, they were fitting crafts for a sport that promises harmony with the sea.

But modern boards are made with polyurethane foam, fiberglass and epoxy resin, decidedly unromantic and toxic petrochemicals that can harm workers and the environment during manufacture, then languish in landfills at the end of their life. Many manufacturers are making surfboards greener by switching to natural materials.


They’re doing the right thing, right?

Not necessarily, says 26-year-old Tobias Schultz (M.S.’10 ME), a lightly tanned, blond-ponytailed Santa Cruz native who just graduated with his mechanical engineering master’s and a certificate in Engineering and Business for Sustainability. He is also the author of an extensive study on the carbon footprint of the surfing lifestyle, Surfboard Cradle-to-Grave, which he published in 2009.

“Companies have a lot of interest in making surfboards more sustainable,” Schultz says, by, for example, switching fiberglass out for bamboo fiber. But, he asks, do we actually know whether bamboo has the lower carbon footprint?

“Fiberglass comes from sand,” he adds, “one of our most plentiful natural substances. While bamboo is theoretically a renewable resource, if grown poorly it can become an invasive species. And it still takes a lot of energy and toxic chemicals to turn bamboo into cloth suitable for use in surfboards.”

Schultz learned to surf in San Diego at age 14 and “has been hard at it ever since.” With a bachelor’s in physics from UC Santa Cruz and the Schrödinger equation tattooed on his left arm, he is most definitely not your typical surfer dude. He now consults on renewable energy and is planning a career in large-scale, commercial infrastructure projects because of the impact they can have on mitigating climate change.

“Solar energy is great because you’re removing carbon dioxide emissions from the picture,” Schultz says. “But solar is also a lot safer than fossil fuels like natural gas. The San Bruno explosion [Sept. 9, 2010] is a perfect example of how fossil fuels are not just bad for the environment; they’re more dangerous for people.”

At Berkeley, Schultz also worked on sustainable housing and life-cycle assessment—the painstaking analysis of the resources consumed and pollution caused by manufacturing, using and decommissioning a product.

In civil and environmental engineering professor Arpad Horvath’s class on life-cycle assessment, he studied the tools that are applied to reduce the carbon emissions of processes like cement manufacture and transportation. It was there he got inspired to crunch the numbers on surfboards.

He calculated inputs and outputs of everything from chemicals used in making foam blanks, to emissions from transportation, to toxic exposures. He compared data for two common board types, polyurethane and epoxy. He examined board lifetimes to determine whether the higher toxicity of epoxy is offset by its greater longevity.

Surprise! He found that fiberglass manufacture represents only about 5 percent of a surfboard’s carbon footprint, whereas resin and blank production make up about 70 percent. And, those data led him to another discovery.

“I noticed that people are driving a lot and figured I should plug in some numbers to see how this affected the overall carbon footprint,” he says. “It turned out that driving is the lion’s share of carbon emissions for the surfing lifestyle. Those results were a wake-up call.”

In fact, driving and flying to the surf make up 75 percent and 23 percent, respectively, of a typical surfer’s carbon footprint, while surfboard manufacture accounts for just 2 percent. So replacing fiberglass with bamboo reduces the surfing carbon footprint only very slightly.

Instead, Schultz advises board producers to focus on resin and blank manufacture, a much larger slice of the pie chart. For surfers, he recommends living close to the beach, switching to fuel-efficient vehicles and buying from local shapers, the craftsmen who assemble surfboards.

His own tiny San Francisco apartment on Sloat Boulevard is a short walk to Ocean Beach. He gets his boards from a Santa Cruz shaper whose work, he says, is so good that he has not repaired his current board for more than a year. “And I’ve surfed the heck out of it,” he adds.

Some of Schultz’s opinions have raised the ire of some in the surfing community. But he believes that, viewed broadly, the environmental costs of surfing might be outweighed by its social and environmental benefits. These include health and fitness, strong social bonds, communion with nature and more, Schultz says.

“I certainly would not have gotten into the field of sustainability if it hadn’t been for surfing,” he adds. “It gives you a really close personal tie with the ocean every day.”

Surfing is an excellent treatment for children with cystic fibrosis and autism. It also motivates the surfing community to clean up oily beaches and save precious stretches for their sport. San Onofre State Park, for example, was spared from becoming a toll road by local surfers who wanted to preserve Lower Trestles, a world-renowned surf spot located there.

That’s good for Schultz, good for surfing, and good for the planet.

Courtesy “Innovations, Research News from Berkeley Engineering,” U.C. Berkeley College of Engineering, by Patti Meagher

Think globally, surf locally