Human-powered sports can involve practices and materials that are not good for the environment. This article describes a move toward eco-friendly action sports by individuals and organizations who are catching the green wave for their own benefit and that of the environment.
By Wendy Priesnitz
People who participate in action sports like skiing, surfing, snowboarding, and BMX cycling can be among the first to notice polluted water and landscapes, whether it’s litter on beaches or slopes without snow. However, these so-called extreme sports can cause problems for the environment, often involving eco-unfriendly practices and materials.
Surfing is a good example of the problems surrounding extreme sports. Surfers, who cultivate a groovy image that speaks of living simply on pristine beaches, are often made ill from navigating raw sewage discharged into oceans near their favorite beaches. On the other hand, the toxic nature of surfboard manufacturing, which has included urethane, fiberglass, and polyester resin, has become a well-known downside to the sport. A few years back, the primary supplier of polyurethane foam “blanks” for surfboards went out of business, rumored to be under investigation for poor environmental practices and having been sued by the widow of a former worker, who claimed her husband died from exposure to toluene diisocyanate at the factory.
The company’s demise created a temporary inconvenience and price hike for surfers; it also spurred innovation into the use of alternative materials for surfboard construction, part of a move toward more eco-friendly action sports activities. Some manufacturers have been using epoxy resins in place of polyester resins, resulting in about 75 percent fewer volatile organic compounds (VOCs.) Epoxy resin has made the use of polystyrene possible, which can be, theoretically at least, recycled. Other companies have developed boards that use a woven bamboo mat in place of fiberglass cloth.
Hemp is being pursued as another alternative component of eco-friendly surfboards. Some users claim hemp-based surfboards are as good, if not better, than fibreglas ones. In 2006, a company based in Nicaragua and the UK, called Ocean Green, won an award for green surfboard manufacturing with its EcoFoil boards, which were made in a Fair Trade environment from natural materials like FSC-certified sustainably forested balsa wood and organically grown hemp cloth. Unfortunately, the company does not seem to be around anymore.
No matter what the impact of the board, a surfer needs clean beaches at which to surf. And that’s the aim of the Surfrider Foundation, an organization founded in 1984 in California by four surfers determined to protect their favorite surfing area from a proposed seawall. It now has over 250,000 volunteers and supporters in the USA and other countries who are devoted to protecting the planet’s coastal zones. In addition, International Surfrider Foundation chapters and affiliates have been established in many other countries including Europe, Brazil, Australia, Canada, and Japan. Projects over the years have included taking its Respect the Beach program to schools, doing water quality monitoring via its Blue Water Task Force, and citizen-based coastal mapping. It has also created the Snowrider Project to give snowboarders and skiers a vehicle for environmental activism.
On the other side of the ocean, Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) is an environmental charity protecting the UK’s oceans, waves, and beaches for all to enjoy safely and sustainably. Their programs are a mix of community action, campaigning, volunteering, conservation, education, and scientific research.
Skiers and snowboarders are as well positioned as surfers to notice environmental problems. On the day a practice run in Colorado for a World Cup ski event was cancelled because of too much snow, another World Cup event in France was cancelled on account of too little snow. According to a report by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), in thirty years, the snowline in the Alps will rise by 300m (almost 1000 feet). Terrifyingly, it estimates that 50 per cent of all ski resorts in Europe may have to close in the next 50 years.
Climate change has already had a negative impact on ski resorts around the world. Understanding that the sport is at risk of extinction if the industry does not combat climate change, an organization called Mountain Rider’s Alliance (MRA) works to create sustainable ski environments. It has launched an initiative called the Mountain Playground Group, designed to assist community and independent ski areas in the U.S. and Canada to be more viable by working together and focusing on environmental respect. They encourage the use of clean energy and new infrastructure based on sustainable green building practices.
The search for suitable products for eco-friendly action sports also continues. For instance, Niche Snowboards announced in early 2016 that it has developed the first 100 percent fully recyclable snowboard, allowing all manufacturing waste and the product itself to be recycled and repurposed for reuse at the end of its product life cycle. Snowboard Green is a good source of up-to-date information on products and projects for greening the snowboarding industry.
Those who can no longer find places to engage in their high intensity skiing or snowboarding habit may find themselves using the warmer climate for skateboarding. However, that’s another action sport that needs to green up its act. Skateboarding’s main problem is that it uses a lot of wood. An estimated 200,000 thousand new wood decks for skateboarding events are built every month. Skateboarders often compete on a 50-foot-high wooden ramp that lets them take flight. There have been initiatives to recycle some of that wood, including one by champion skateboarder Bob Burnquist.
Another summer action sport is paddling – in kayaks, outrigger canoes, paddleboards, or other assorted vessels. Paddling leaps into the extreme sports realm at the Molokai Race in Hawaii, a 32-kilometer journey on what has been called one of the most treacherous spans of ocean in the world. Every year, a paddler flies the Eco Flag, a symbol of the commitment of sports enthusiasts worldwide to the environment. The Ecoflag is a global initiative, run by the Global Sports Alliance, based in Japan and supported by the United Nations Environment Program. Over 6,000 of the flags now fly at sporting events around the world as a symbol of the athletes’ commitment to the environment.
Extreme sports began as a southern California alternative phenomenon favored by young, idealistic rebels, well suited to caring about the environment. But now it’s become big business, with the corporate world perceiving it as a vehicle for marketing to the important 18- to 25-year-old male demographic. And now, the pinnacle of participation in the action sports world is the X Games. Launched in 1995 by sports broadcaster ESPN (which is owned by ABC/Disney), the X Games was an early adopter of eco-friendly action sports and has been declaring itself in recent years to be “the world’s greenest action sports event.”
The X Games Environmentality™ program focuses on preventing pollution, purchasing sustainable materials and reducing waste. Among the eco-friendly changes has been a switch to the use of FSC-certified wood for the competition ramps used by skateboarders, BMX bike riders, and in-line skaters. In addition, athlete trading cards are printed on 100 percent recycled paper that’s processed without chlorine, the sound system is powered by a solar bus, and recyclables are sorted out of the garbage bins. Wind power credits provide a source of renewable energy and the games are carbon neutral through the use of emissions offsets. To honor participating athletes, trees are planted in support of preventing pollution. In the staff catering area, utensils, plates, and cups made from biodegradable materials, such as corn, sugarcane, and paper are provided.
“The ESPN X Games attracts a young demographic, and that puts us in a terrific position to lead by example in increasing environmental education and awareness for future generations,” said Chris Stiepock, X Games General Manager, a few years back. “Our sports depend on a healthy environment, and we’re proud of our efforts to preserve natural resources in any way we can.”
Indeed, many of the so-called “alternative sports” – the extreme ones, the human-powered ones, the solitary ones and the team ones – depend upon a healthy environment. So whichever of the action sports you choose to play this summer, for fun or competition, try to find a way to do it that won’t harm the environment. In the future, eco-friendly action sports could be the only ones around.
Wendy Priesnitz is the Editor of Natural Life Magazine, where an earlier version of this article was first published. She is also a journalist with forty years of experience and the author of thirteen books.