Tom Kay, founder of sustainable outdoor wear brand Finisterre, tests the prototype, of what they believe is the world's first recyclable wetsuit, in Cornwall, Britain in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters on September 17, 2019. (Finisterre/Handout via REUTERS/File)
Surf culture often prides itself on an affinity for nature. But there's a dirty secret hiding in many surfers' cupboards - old wetsuits.
A combination of salt water, UV rays and the wear-and-tear of life in the surf means most wetsuits only last a couple of years before they start to lose warmth and elasticity. Made from non-biodegradable rubber neoprene, surfers are often stuck with their old gear.
"There's a lot of wetsuits out in people's garages and houses," Tom Kay, founder of sustainable outdoor wear brand Finisterre, told Reuters from the company's headquarters near the rugged headlands of St Agnes in Cornwall.
"Most wetsuits only last two years and after that there's no known guidance about what to do with them at the end of their life... And neoprene is a very unbiodegradable fabric," he added.
Neoprene is a widely used petroleum-based synthetic rubber known for its thermal insulation and snug fit, making it wetsuit manufacturers' go-to choice for decades.
But unlike many plastics that can be broken down and recycled, neoprene is a 'thermoset' where its molecules are locked in position.
"It basically means that it's processed in a way that can't (easily) be reversed. So that's why it's so challenging to recycle," explained materials scientist-turned fulltime wetsuit designer Jenny Banks, who is employed by Finisterre specifically to figure out how to bring recycling into the wetsuit industry.
She added that traditional wetsuit design also involves the use of fabric linings which pose further challenges when it comes to recycling.
After two years of research and experimentation, they've created what they believe is the first fully recyclable wetsuit.
"We've been trying to find other ways to keep the wetsuit performing and staying strong and having reinforcement but actually eliminating the (nonrecyclable) fabrics," said Banks.
The first prototype was recently tested by Kay in the surf. It was warmer than his usual wetsuit, he found. Some tweaks were needed on the fit and ease of getting in and out of, "but it's a really exciting start. We are still testing before we refine for the next prototype," he said in a statement.
When it does hit the shelves, Finisterre says its price must be comparable to a regular wetsuit.
Eventually, the team says they want to make the design construction open-source in a bid to help the wetsuit industry as a whole become more environmentally friendly.
"We want to say to bigger brands 'look, we can do this' and if we can do this together, we can all do it," said Banks.
As well as trying to eliminate wetsuit waste at the design phase, Finisterre has also partnered with UK-based company Renew ELP to trial their innovative recycling technology - breaking down and transforming existing wetsuits into a non-virgin crude oil that can be re-used by the plastics industry. As part of these ongoing trials, Finisterre is launching a wetsuit buy-back scheme in October, where surfers can drop off their old wetsuits to be used in a test recycling program.