What is a surfer supposed to do with wetsuits after they run the course of their lifespan? If you’ve ever wondered that very question yourself and asked your local surf shop (or even called the wetsuit manufacturer), you may have found that there is no definitive answer.
Many surfers have bins full of old wetsuits for not wanting to just toss them in the landfill. But is it possible to make a brand new wetsuit from an old wetsuit? That’s the million dollar question for Finisterre founder Tom Kay. The UK-based cold water surf company launched a wetsuit recycling program in November 2017 to explore the possibilities of turning neoprene into a recyclable material — This goes hand-in-hand with their newly certified B Corp status.
We hopped on the phone with Kay from across the pond to chat about the hopes and challenges for the program, as well as Finisterre’s dedication to changing the paradigm within the wetsuit industry.
Why did Finisterre decide to undertake this challenge?
When we decided to do wetsuits, we wanted to address the fact that nobody makes wetsuits that last more than say six months. There's no structure to finding out anything about how to recycle a wetsuit. It sort of slipped under the carpet. What happens to the product after its natural use — there's no responsibility taken by the wetsuit industry whatsoever in terms of what they should do with the suit at the end of its life. That's a problem.
In the U.K. alone, there's about a half million surfers, and they're probably buying one or two suits a year, and they probably last a year on average, maybe longer. Everyone's got a pile of suits in the garage or shed or the back of their car that they don't know what to do with. You can't throw them away, so what do you do with them?
So where to start on solving this problem?
That's the pretext: the problem. So what can we do about this? It's not really an industry that we have a major knowledge base around. So the difference in this and other programs is we're working with a leading academic institution with a center for material re-engineering. For us, it's about looking at closing the loop. Not just downcylcing, which is a really great scheme to make them into yoga mats or stubby holders. That's applaudable, but can we make wetsuits from wetsuits? In this day and age, when all kinds of things are getting made from all kinds of stuff, there must be an option for us.
Jenny Banks is our full time wetsuit recycler and took up the post last November. It's a big challenge that we are taking on, so it needs a full-time person who is prepared to be radical and really push things. She's supported and mentored by Exeter University materials re-engineering department, so there is heavyweight scientific backing to the role.
Originally from a science background, Jenny went on to do a Material Futures Masters at St. Martins, London and is driven by designing for the circular economy, so she’s a perfect match for Finisterre's #wetsuitfromwetusits program. I don't know for a fact, but she must be the only wetsuit recycler in the world.
How do you envision the program working?
The full ambition of the project is to build wetsuits from wetsuits. It seemed to start, you send your wetsuit back, we send it to the lab, do something to it, and then make a new wetsuit from it. That's the ultimate aim. That's my mark in the sand.
In terms of getting there, that's the real challenge because neoprene is a very difficult material to work with. The first step is building recyclability into the design of a wetsuit. So when we do get them back after say two years, it can be broken down and easily recycled. So the first thing for us to do is work out how to build a suit that can be broken down and recycled. Hopefully we can accomplish that this year and then can launch a testing program. And eventually build onto that for a complete lifecycle view of the product. I don't know where it's gonna go, but with the backing of the University and the scientists, it will hopefully tread some new ground.
What are some of the challenges in convincing the wetsuit industry and surfers to adopt recyclability?
I suppose for me, imagine if you came up with a source for recycling wetsuits. Someone that came up with the idea and you could make it available to the wetsuit industry, that would be unbelievable. That's what we want to do. That kind of imagination and potential and possibility, I think it's really exciting when we've got a lot of issues in the world today. It's quite empowering to have a brand or business to commit to find these opportunities to do something. It would be great if we could find something out that might do that.
People say, "Oh you'll never do it. No one's ever done it." But we love that challenge and we're really up for that pioneering approach to making a better plan. We're very open about what the results are, and it'd be great if we could share it with the rest of the industry — it'd be amazing.
There are some eco-alternative wetsuits out there, but none really pushing for recyclability.
I don't think there's any closed loop manufacturing in wetsuits at the moment. There's good alternatives, like right now we're working with Yulex suits, which we'll be selling this spring/summer. But there's nothing out there based around closed loop manufacturing in the wetsuit industry. If we can introduce closed loop that is ideally just going around around and around with minimal addition of new raw materials, that is the ultimate sort of challenge. We repair our products so they last as long as possible. That's how we operate. We're not in the business of selling five jackets or five wetsuits in five years.
Wetsuit technology has increased tenfold in a short number of years. Why the lack of attention by wetsuit manufacturers to making wetsuits more environmentally friendly?
It's a very difficult thing to take on. It's quite a dirty industry. You look at a business where you've got this much revenue coming from a product that has to be replaced every year or every two years, why would someone try and encourage customers to keep it for longer or last longer?
I don't think there's many businesses out there that have the reason why they exist is to bring innovation into their product line with the goal of achieving sustainability. There's innovation based around things like a Bluetooth headset in my snowboard jacket, quite gimmicky. But it isn't a fundamental reason for why you exist as a brand; why you're here. For us, it's very natural. But I suppose if you haven't got that in your business, why would you destabilize that with a recyclable suit that surfers can bring back?
It's quite dated thinking I suppose, and it's honestly a very big challenge to take on. People really haven't felt like taking it on. And I'm very honest in that we don't actually know where this is going to go. But it identifies a problem, and our outlook as a brand is to address those sustainable problems with solutions. It's better than doing nothing, and it's really exciting. We're really shooting for the ambition of it going really well.
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