The whole ball of wax…
Conserve water, go solar, ride your bike to work, don’t use those horrible thin plastic supermarket bags, start a worm farm, get a hybrid vehicle…what’s number one hundred and ninety nine point nine on your list of things to do before you gain full credit in lifestyle sustainability? Ditch that wax.
Which wax you say? Easy. Any of those lovely smelling, beautifully whitened, petroleum-enriched surfboard waxes currently getting soft in the summer sun on the dashboard of the trusty old surf mobile.
First things first – what’s the history of this fragrant and most definitely essential accessory to the perfect quiver? Well, long before the days of Sex Wax and Mrs Palmers, surfers had been struggling to find a way of keeping their feet on their boards in the critical part of the waves. Until 1935, innovative surfers of the time would include a textured finish on their surfboards. The sandpaper-like glass job certainly increased friction but had one major shortcoming – it shredded their stomachs apart on the paddle. Luckily for them, some bright spark in good ol Southern California named Alfred came up with the clever idea of using paraffin wax to create friction. The story goes that Al came home from a surf one day and noticed the stickiness of the floor after his Mum had waxed the floorboards. Genius.
The paraffin wax craze was embraced by surfers of the time and was to stick (pardon the pun) around for the best part of the next two decades but came with a few drawbacks. It wasn’t until the swinging 60’s that the first ever wax designed specifically for surfing was developed. “Waxmate” set the tone for waxes of the future, made up of a combination of 30 weight motor oil and paraffin wax. The mixture had a strong petroleum smell (fancy that) so they used an artificial grape scent to mask the smell. They also added purple (a lovely complement for the grape) to overcome the brown and dirty appearance.
As other companies entered the market surfboard wax started to evolve into a stickier and more refined (again, no pun intended) product. New ingredients like synthetic resin and rubber mixtures were used along with specialised glues to increase tackiness and petroleum jelly to soften the wax and make it more suitable for colder climates. Scents such as coconut and vanilla were added to mask the odours of the petrochemicals and synthetic dyes and to complement the bleached colouration.
So where are we at today? 6 million bars of surf wax are used and discarded worldwide every year. And the majority of these are still made from a concoction of petrochemicals: by-products of crude oil. You’d need to have had your head well buried in the sand for the best part of the last decade not to know about all the detrimental effects petrochemicals have on the environment. The stickiness comes from toxic synthetic resins and glues and the synthetic fragrances are manufactured in laboratories using chemicals like acetates, benezene derivatives, solvents and aldehydes. To give an example, the artificial flavouring for strawberry contains no fewer than 40 different chemicals. Yikes.
Where do all these nasties end up? Ultimately in the ocean. Scraping that old wax off and ditching it in the car park or on the beach is a big no-no, but then even if it made it to the bin, it would only end up in the landfill where it couldn’t break down either.
The alternative? There are a growing number of natural, biodegradable surf waxes now available. The common misconception for any eco product is that it will compromise quality to go green. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, many pro surfers such as Cory Lopez and Jason “Ratboy” Collins now use natural waxes. There is even proof out there that some of the biggest names (or more specifically THE biggest name) in surfing uses a green alternative wax but is prohibited by sponsorship agreements to broadcast the fact. So, for all you up and coming pros out there no need to worry about compromising your backhand moves by switching waxes. And for the rest of us mere surf addicts with perhaps a touch less natural flair, it wouldn’t make any difference to performance anyway! So I say buck the trend, go easy on the ocean and buy natural wax – it’s no more expensive, smells better and you might even win a few carbon credits along the way.