Surf’s up, but at what cost? Although surfing is an exhilarating sport enjoyed by nature and water lovers alike, the surf industry contributes to our plastic pollution problem. Unfortunately, the sport can negatively impact our environment, as 80% of the boards produced today are constructed from unsustainable materials. Thanks to mycelium, however, surfboards could soon have an eco-friendly alternative in the near future.
Most surfboards sold today are made from materials called expanded polystyrene (EPS) and polyurethane (PU). These types of plastics are created from petrochemicals which are derived from petroleum and natural gas. Foam and fiberglass boards are more popular than wooden surfboards because they have lower production costs and are easier to produce, but the environmental impact of these boards is significant.
Every year 400,000 surfboards are sold in America, which is great for the surf industry but not so wonderful for our environment. Once these plastic surfboards become damaged, they will unlikely be repaired. Some damages are just too challenging to fix professionally. In some instances, the surfboards could have been restored, but owners want to avoid the hassle of fixing them because getting a brand-new one is easier and cheaper.
Unfortunately, the disposal of these boards further adds to our existing plastic waste crisis. Many of these boards are abandoned on beaches and, eventually, end up in the ocean, contributing to the 14 million tons of plastic that enter the ocean every year. The remainder of the disposed boards are sent to landfills. They will stay there for hundreds of years since they are not biodegradable and take several centuries to decompose, releasing toxic chemicals into our soil and water.
The United States alone produces around 42 million metric tons of plastic annually. Though plastic surfboards only make up a minimal portion of this much larger plastic pollution problem, hundreds of thousands of boards still sit in our landfills. More are being added daily, which still highly contributes to this issue. Every industry should do their part in reducing plastic production because all plastic waste added to the environment adds up. As more information demonstrates just how harmful plastics are for our planet, both individuals and industries must do their part by reducing how much plastic they use and seeking more sustainable alternatives for popular products such as surfboards. Not only should we promote the reuse and repair of existing boards, but we should explore eco-friendly solutions for surfboard production. This is where mycelium comes into the picture.
Mushrooms go far beyond the visible toadstool fungus that pops out from the ground or grows on a decaying tree. In fact, they’re simply the fruiting body of an entirely larger fungal organism. Below the surface is a complex system of mycelium which are small, thread-like structures that act similar to the roots of a plant. Mycelium spreads through the surrounding substrate as tiny branching filaments called hyphae, which absorb water and nutrients from their surroundings. The hyphae of one fungal species can interconnect with the hyphae of other fungi, creating a network that can stretch for several miles.
While it seeks nourishment from decaying matter, the mycelial hyphae decompose organic matter, recycling much of the nutrients back into the ecosystem. As a result, mycelium plays a crucial role in maintaining a healthy ecological cycle. The process of decomposition benefits not only the fungus but also all of the other living organisms around it. Plants and bacteria absorb the nutrients that mycelium recycles; plus, mycelium gets rid of an overgrowth of biomass which can negatively impact the growth of organisms in the forest.
Beyond nutrient recycling, mycelium can help prevent erosion by stabilizing the soil. Furthermore, the mycelium of many fungal species can form symbiotic relationships with other plant and fungal organisms to exchange nutrients, warnings, and other resources.
Recently, the role of mycelium has gone past the forest floor, as scientists have found that it is a highly effective material for several other applications. Since mycelium grows so quickly, it is relatively simple to produce. Mycelium can be grown on several types of waste materials, like sawdust and agricultural waste, making it a highly sustainable resource. Additionally, mycelium is very versatile and can be used in various products depending on the type of mycelium grown and the substrate it’s grown on. Ultimately, mycelium is a biodegradable, flame-resistant, and antimicrobial material that is lightweight yet incredibly durable. These traits allow mycelium to be used as a sustainable medium in various goods.
All of the beneficial properties of mycelium allow it to create several high-performance, sustainable products, from food to clothing, housing, and innovations in water sports. The durable nature of mycelium makes it the perfect raw material for creating eco-friendly surfboards. This is precisely why the New York-based company, Ecovative Designs, entered the mycelium game. They realized that mycelium is one of nature’s most effective building blocks because it naturally configures itself in forms that effectively take up surface area without using too much energy. Ecovative seeks out suitable species of fungal mycelium to replicate the structures of original animal materials like meat and leather, as well as items typically made of artificial materials like packaging and foams. They use specified controlled conditions to grow their mycelium, then coaxes it into their designated structures and materials. These materials make up their trademarked technologies, such as their lightweight and durable Myco-composite blend made from hemp and mycelium material, which is used as the structure for their mycelium surfboards.
Ecovative’s surfboards started out as a personal project of cofounder Gavin McIntyre who grew up surfing on the Long Island waters. It took several prototypes to achieve the final products of Ecovative’s Mushroom® Surfboard, which is the first mycelium surfboard to hit the waves. These surfboards are both bio-based and biodegradable, which solves the waste problem that plastic-based surfboards present. Despite their compostable nature, these boards work great in the water and are the perfect size and density for surfing.
After creating the perfect recipe for a mushroom mycelium board, Ecovative sought out a California surf company called Surf Organics to pilot their mushroom board platform. Ecovative did not have the resources to mold the different shapes and sizes of boards commonly sold to surfers. So instead, they taught Surf Organics their patented mushroom technology and provided the raw materials they needed to start producing boards using their own custom surfboard shapers. Together, they have successfully created sustainable surfboards that have served as a catalyst for several other surf companies, all aspiring to revolutionize the future of surfing.
Ecovative’s work has inspired people such as Steve Davies, a 23-year-old surfboard designer from the UK. Davies has the same goal as Ecovative and Surf Organics – to make a sustainable surfboard that will hit the mainstream market and eventually replace plastic boards. In an interview with BBC, Davies explains that his interest in mycelium boards began during his final year project as a student at Cardiff Metropolitan University, where he looked into a sustainable solution to curb the environmental impact of surfing. Since then, he has been trying to perfect his own version of a mycelium surfboard.
For his boards, Davies uses mycelium as a glue that binds a “skeleton” structure he creates from materials like straw. It takes around 21 days to grow a mycelium board if it is put under the right conditions, according to Davies. After the mycelium has filled out the surfboard form, he covers it with a waterproof coating made from organic sealants like beeswax. Without the covering, the organic material of the mycelium would eventually break down in the water and wash away. When covered with the right material, the mycelium boards that Davies produces can face the surf like a typical board and last just as long. Davies has found that mycelium has similar properties to widely popular foam boards and is just as buoyant and light. Like all of the other board companies out there, Davies is still searching for the final touches that can bring his board onto the public market. “It will take a little bit of modification and the right species of mushroom to grow it but, eventually, I don’t see any reason why mushroom boards couldn’t be used in the top elite level of surfing, right down to beginner level,” says Davies.
Maybe one day, boards like Ecovative’s or Davie’s will go mainstream, leading to affordable, sustainable, fast-growing mycelium boards that will revolutionize how surfboards are produced.