Is Cork The Answer?

It’s no secret that almost all surf crafts have their own ‘dirty secrets’; once upon a geological time, they were all a deposit of oil, locked somewhere in the Earth’s crust.

A lot happens from that resting place, both good and bad (depending on how you look at it), that eventuates in an exquisite craft that we use to enjoy the ocean: the oil extracted, transported, refined, chemically altered by some mad scientists, transported again, transformed into a product, transported again, then you get tubed…

There are a lot of carbon emissions and other hazardous leftovers along every step of the way.

It’s a lot to take in, but damn, it’s a lot of fun in the end. Totally worth it.

This is the reality of the craft we enjoy.  We have to accept that there are ecological impacts, but it doesn’t mean it has to remain this way forever. 

I’m a firm believer in the transformative powers of business and innovation. In my work at Loudspring I see whole industries put on a path towards more sustainability and less environmental impact every day just by the ideas and drive of entrepreneurs. Big impacts start with ideas, and the bodyboarding industry is no different. If brands and individuals make the effort and think outside the box, so much can change.

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There are many ways you can approach innovation when it comes to a product: you can innovate with the business model, such as is the case with Nova Bodyboard, a new initiative launching right now that is essentially a leasing model for boards (you don’t own the board, but instead have access to boards for a fee). You can innovate with design, such as by designing away material need from the beginning and also embedding design that makes the end product ‘cradle-to-cradle’ (it can be disassembled after use and made into something new with very little material waste). Or you can innovate with materials, which is what Pride Bodyboards has done recently with the cork board they revealed on Instagram.

Now, I have to add a few lines here about how I ride Found Boards and yes, I am discussing this new release from Pride not as an endorsement of their products (Mitch wouldn’t appreciate that), and neither as a chance to diminish the significance of their efforts (because that wouldn’t be good for anyone either). I am writing this piece to open up discussion about how we best move forward as an industry, all so that we make a smaller impact on the planet while we enjoy the stoke of bodyboarding.

So, is cork the answer?

Well, I figured it best to start by putting together a short history of cork and explore why it is an environmental material worth considering.

Quercus suber is its Latin name, but ‘cork oak’ is what we call it today. It’s a tree that has been harvested for a bloody long time. The ancient Greeks and Romans used cork and natural resins to stopper wine and oil a couple thousand years ago, so you could say that we’ve known that cork is handy for quite some time. Fast forward to today and some 70 percent of all cork produced globally is used to make wine bottle stoppers. Portugal alone produces 40 million stoppers per day. The total production of stoppers worldwide is around 15 billion.

That’s a lot of vino.

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With such a long period of time harvesting a single type of tree (a couple thousand years) you might be wondering why it hasn’t been wiped out already. The answer is that it’s a completely renewable resource due to the fact that it is only the bark that is harvested, not the entire tree itself.

How is cork harvested exactly?

When a cork oak is 25 years old, its outer layer is stripped off and harvested by hand, leaving the trunk unharmed. A single tree can be harvested in this way every nine years for up to 200 years. That wasn’t a typo – cork is a material that you can cut from a tree for 200 years. During the lifetime of a single cork oak roughly 1 000 000 wine stoppers can be produced.

That’s a hell of a lot of vino!

Cork is an entirely recyclable, self-renewing and biodegradable product, but it is also an environmentally positive material for other reasons. The preservation and sustainable harvesting of cork forests means that biodiversity is able to be preserved. It is difficult to say how many animals are going extinct each year (because we don’t know how many animals there are to begin with), but the WWF states that, if the low estimate of the number of species out there is true (around 2 million different species on our planet), there are between 200 and 2 000 extinctions occurring every year. That statistic is enough to send you spiraling into a deep depression about what it really means to be a human today, but before you go there, think of cork.

Cork forests provide habitats for endangered and rare species such as the Short-Toed Eagle, Egyptian Mongoose, Barbary deer and the Iberian Lynx, as well as other biologically important flora and fungi. Cork is pretty handy when it comes to biodiversity.

Ponder cork and smile.

Cork is also a climate positive material. Increasing the use of it means there is a continuation or improvement in the amount of CO2 that cork forests can absorb. Compare that to a traditional board made from thermoplastic that requires fossil fuels. The presence of cork forests also prevents soil from drying out. There really aren’t many materials out there that have this kind of deep environmental impact.

It does sound like cork could be the answer, right?

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Pride created some waves with their release of a cork bodyboard recently. Are they onto something?

Seb Boulard works with Pride in a number of roles – he certainly knows his way around the back end of a Facebook page, manages the crop of riders on the Pride roster, and also leads the company’s marketing efforts. For this article he put on the hat of ‘PR spokesperson’ for the company.

“It’s crucial for us at Pride Bodyboards to reduce the impact of bodyboarding on the environment, given the relation of our sport with mother nature and the ocean in particular. Having sustainable solutions see the light in other industries has just created the spark we needed to actively start thinking about different paths for us as a brand.”

“When it comes to sustainability in bodyboarding, we’re looking at both ends of the problem: creating sustainable (or at least, more sustainable) bodyboards, or finding ways to recycle or ideally upcycle bodyboards. We’re currently evaluating options on a local scale for the recycling process in order to get started.”

“This new board from us is made from 100% recyclable EPS core and is covered by a layer of flax/bio-epoxy. The external layer is cork. This board has a 40% lower negative impact on the environment compared to a traditional polyethylene or polypropylene board. The calculation was made using the ‘Ecolizer 2.0 method’ which you can check out online.”

Pride acknowledges two main drawbacks to their new cork concept board. Seb explains:

“This board is a prototype, so it is just a demonstration of what we want to do as a brand moving forward. In terms of performance, it doesn’t have the flex properties of a conventional board and its rigidity makes it really uncomfortable to land airs, and not so responsive in bumpy conditions.”

So, cork might not be the answer?

Cork boards aren’t entirely new on the market. Hot Buttered has had a cork-skinned board for a while, and there is even a shaper named Ricardo Motta Paes who is shaping quite beautiful cork and Paulownia timber boards in New Zealand that you can check out here. Pride joins this small group of individuals or brands taking an interest in cork for its sustainability properties. Does this mean we are on the verge of a breakthrough in more sustainable materials in bodyboarding?

It’s difficult to say.

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On the one hand, it could be said that boards need to meet the current (high) benchmark for performance if they are to make a serious impact in buying habits. Anything less could be perceived as ‘greenwashing’ (a pejorative term used to describe an environmental initiative by a brand that doesn’t really have much environmental impact in reality). Pride’s concept board could be argued by some to be ‘greenwash’, but this author doesn’t think so.

But, if an ‘eco’ board doesn’t meet the high-performance standards we have today then why bother making it in the first place?

Well, that’s for the other hand to answer…

Change can happen suddenly (think how quickly iPhones become ‘essential’) or incrementally. Is the mere symbolism of a mainstream brand taking the first step on a journey towards more environmentally positive materials in bodyboarding enough to justify the effort?

Symbols and statements matter. They make us stop and think. Even consider possibilities for real change.

Even if this cork concept board from Pride has performance limitations, a brand signaling to the rest of the industry that the race towards more sustainable products is now on is a very positive development, because this is a race where we are all winners.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t take as long as a ‘cork oak lifetime’ to reach the end goal…