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A trait that I admire in people, and that many of my heroes possess, is the ability to innovate- to look at the way something is and ask, “How did it get to be this way, and how can we make it work better?”
That’s what I’ve seen my friend, Kevin Whilden, do with his non-profit, Sustainable Surf. In a few short years him and his team have turned an unconventional idea into a popular movement by chipping at the tired old idea of throwing things “away.” This is evident in their most recent program called Waste to Waves, which collects unwanted styrofoam and turns it into new surf boards.
Kevin will explain more about it in his interview, so I’ll shut up now.
SLS- How did your earlier pursuits in life bring you to where you are now?
KW- As a kid, I loved two things. Collecting rocks and figuring out how things worked. So I studied physics and geology in school, and focused on how the Earth’s climate, biology, and geology changed and evolved over time. Since then, every job I have had has involved solving human-induced climate change or sustainability in one way or another. I particularly enjoy the clever solutions that can create dramatic change, and Sustainable Surf is designed to do exactly that.
SLS- So what is Waste to Waves and how was the idea born?
KW- Waste to Waves is a program that I started with my business partner, Michael Stewart. It’s one of the signature programs of Sustainable Surf. We started developing it in the Spring of 2011.
The goal is to solve many problems at once, while inspiring people to act because the results are so fun. Many people generally think styrofoam is bad because it’s the most common piece of plastic trash in our ocean and beaches. Turning this problem into something cool, like a surfboard, is actually fun and exciting. How many other fun and exciting recycling programs are out there?
Waste to Waves gets people into surf shops, which are struggling, and supports the styrofoam recycling business, which is also struggling. It also supports the custom USA-made surfboard builders, who can shape with recycled EPS foam.
SLS- In your experience, are the boards made with the EPS foam as durable as those made with traditional foam?
KW- My partner I have both been surfing Marko recycled EPS blanks for years, and they have worked great with no issues. I also did the life cycle analysis to show that the recycled EPS foam has less than half of the environmental impact of ‘virgin’ EPS foam. We started Waste to Waves to help build demand for recycled EPS in surfboards, and thus reduce the environmental impact of surfboards.
SLS- What draws you to the ocean? Why fight for it?
KW- As a surfer, I love to surf in clean unspoiled nature, and share this with other creatures, from dolphins to jellyfish. Also, as a geologist I’m aware of how essential the ocean is to all life on earth. I can’t think of anything else that I would rather fight for.
SLS- Why do you think there’s a disconnect between the mentality of surfers who enjoy the ocean but don’t think twice about protecting it?
KW- I think every surfer wants to protect the ocean. It doesn’t matter if they want to because they are a tree-hugger, or because they have more fun surfing in a clean ocean. The disconnect comes from understanding what the threats are to surfing, and that there are easy and fun ways to solve those threats. The recent Save Trestles campaign shows how all surfers can come together to protect the ocean from direct obvious threats. However most other threats, like marine plastic pollution and CO2 emissions, do not have such direct and obvious solutions. That’s where the ‘fun’ of creating a new surfboard through recycling can help inspire people to act in many different ways.
SLS- If you had a magic wand and you could fix only one of the ocean’s major ailments (ie overfishing, rising sea levels and temp, plastic pollution, oil drilling, etc) which would it be and why?
KW- I would stop human CO2 emissions, because that drives the most significant impacts on the oceans, such as rising sea levels and ocean acidification. Those two impacts alone will wipe out many of the surf breaks worldwide, and have destructive impacts on the ecology of the ocean. Even worse is how large, rapid emissions of CO2 can trigger biogeochemical changes in the oceans that cause mass extinctions. Google “CO2 mass extinctions”, and see what the geological record tells.
SLS- What is your ideal vision of the future surf industry?
KW- Surfers will become leaders in sustainable lifestyles and sustainable business. The culture is closely tied to these ideals, and change can happen rapidly if the right solutions are available.
SLS- Have you seen shifting mentalities since you’ve been involved in ocean conservation? For better or for worse?
KW- Yes, it seems like ocean conservation is a growing movement. Most people intuitively get this. However, there are still disconnects between actions and impacts in every day life. We hope Sustainable Surf can help create better connections betweens threats and solutions, while creating community and fun.
SLS- What’s one simple daily behavior/habit the average Joe can change to help protect the ocean?
KW- Reduce the use of single-use plastic bags, water bottles and food containers. These really do get into the ocean through careless disposal. Surfrider’s Rise Above Plastics campaign is on the right track, and that’s why Surfrider is also a big supporter of Waste to Waves. Carrying a water bottle and reusable grocery bags is another big step.
SLS- Any tips for someone who wants to start up an ocean conservation non-profit?
KW- If it’s your dream, just do it and don’t be afraid to ask for help from everyone you meet. It’s not an easy path, but it is very rewarding.
SLS- What types of boards do you ride?
KW- All of my boards are made with recycled EPS foam and bio-based epoxy resin. I learned to surf when I was 37, so I ride larger shortboards, fishes, and longboards.
SLS- What’s your all-time favorite surf board?
KW- I just ordered an asymmetric shortboard from Donald Brink. I’m stoked on it because it has such an outside of the box solution to form and function. I like clever solutions like that. I’m also really happy with my 6’6 Rising Sun by Timmy Patterson, which is a more traditional take on form and function.
SLS- Favorite beach?
KW- Some where on Santa Cruz Island, there is a hidden beach with cobblestones made from volcanic ash in hues of reds, pinks, purples and greens. There might be good waves nearby as well, but I’m not telling where.
SLS- Any particularly embarrassing times out in the water?
KW- After four years of struggle, I’m finally a good enough surfer to avoid near constant embarrassment.
SLS- And lastly, and probably the most important question of all, would you rather be eaten by a shark or a giant squid?
KW- Giant squids are the meanest creatures in the sea, and I would not want to meet one in its environment. However, I would be pretty stoked to see a Megalodon, which is a 50′ long great white shark that went extinct 1.5 million years ago. As long as I was on big ship…
Sustainable Surf was recently featured in a Forbes article. Check it out to learn more!