Surfing, and I say this as a lifelong, saltwater-in-my-veins hardcore surfer, has to be about the most environmentally hypocritical outdoor pursuit you could find. We care deeply, ostensibly anyway, about the ocean and the natural environment that imbues our very existence with meaning, but when we play, nay—commune—in the sea, we usually do so on unimaginably toxic surfboards, and, if the water is cold, while wearing equally environmentally poisonous wetsuits. Both surfboard and wetsuit are practically dripping with nasty petrochemicals, and though some inroads are being made in terms of sustainably made surfboards, the wetsuit has been slower to adapt.
A new material pioneered by Patagonia called Yulex is a neoprene substitute made from a plant-derived chemical, for example, and some brands have begun using natural rubber rather than neoprene, and are toying with solvents and glues for holding the suits together that aren’t witches brews born in a DuPont cauldron.
But Finisterre, an England-based apparel company focused on surf, which branched into the wetsuit game about five years ago, has a different idea: What if new wetsuits could be made from old wetsuits?
Because eco-friendly suits haven’t exactly caught on in the wider market, both because surfers are typically resistant to change and because the first few suits made with materials other than neoprene weren’t up to snuff, performance-wise, making suits that last as long as possible has been the most promising way to reduce the use and waste of neoprene.
Finisterre’s program hopes to capitalize on that a bit.
Many surfers around the world have several wetsuits lying around that they’ll never wear again. Finisterre cites a figure of somewhere near 350 tons of unused neoprene in the form of forgotten wetsuits. Their idea is to “close the loop” of wetsuit manufacturing by repurposing the neoprene in older suits to be used as constituent material in new suits.
Finisterre last year hired Jenny Banks to be a full-time wetsuit recycler. Or, rather, to figure out how exactly to make this work. She comes from the University of Exeter’s re-manufacturing department, so she has the chops. The university is actually on board with the program and lending their expertise.
The main issue will likely be making it cost-effective to break down an old wetsuit and re-use the material in a new one. Banks also needs to figure out just how neoprene in a wetsuit changes over time, with use, and corrosion in salt water. That can, of course, change with each manufacturer. Will Finisterre only be able to recycle their own suits? Or will they be able to handle all comers? Banks doesn’t yet know.
“No one has ever done this so it’s completely uncharted waters,” Banks said. “But that’s what makes this so exciting.”
Right now if you want to recycle a wetsuit, they’re often remade into things like yoga mats, or beer coozies. A new wetsuit though would be a whole lot cooler.