Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman is the title of Yvon Chouinard, founder and owner of outdoor clothing company Patagonias autobiography. So it should come as no surprise that they are committed not just to selling clothing to enable people to ride the waves but also seeks to find solutions to reduce its negative impact to the natural habitat so many of its customers enjoy. This is a story that ends with Patagonia making their proprietary bio-rubber available to the rest of the surf industry, therefore reducing the negative environmental impact of the industry as a whole. But how did they get there asks Stephen Scott of Bio-Based World News.
When Patagonia first started making wet suits in 2008, they quickly identified neoprene as a material that needed improvements to lessen its environmental impact. It searched for alternatives and discovered that neoprene can be made from limestone instead of petroleum. Limestone however is still a limited, non-renewable resource that is mined from the earth with heavy extractive equipment and heated to extremely high temperatures to remove chemical components. The net environmental benefit of using limestone over petroleum really wasnt that much different. Both petroleum- and limestone-based polychloroprene have equally significant environmental impacts. A new solution was needed.
Patagonias 2008 blog post on the dirty impact of neoprene led to a collaboration with Yulex, a chemicals company specialising in 100% bio-based, natural rubber materials. The plan was to develop a wetsuit material from guayule rubber.
Guayule plants arent grown organically, but they use low amounts of synthetic inputs and water compared to, for example, cotton. During their growth, the plants absorb and sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Guayule is harvested in a way that allows the plant roots to stay in the ground for an average of four years, reducing the soil and carbon loss associated with constant tilling and replanting of typical cropland.
After considerable testing and development, it was decided a blend of the two materials would be the best way to launch our new product line. Although Patagonia (@)are not completely eliminating polychloroprene from its wetsuits, it is a significant step to reducing the environmental footprint of the wetsuit material.
Compared to traditional neoprene made from petroleum (or limestone), guayule rubber is a renewable resource that provides improved elasticity and softness to the finished material and can be replaced faster than the product wears out. The agriculture is low-impact and the extraction and processing uses little energy and few chemicals.
Surfers and wetsuit manufacturers including Patagonia have relied on neoprene for years, despite the fact that its a non-renewable, petroleum-based material with an energy-intensive manufacturing process, said Hub Hubbard Product Line Manager, Wetsuits. Neoprene is nasty stuff, but for a long time we had no alternative. Through our partnership with Yulex weve invested in a plant-based game-changer and built it into our entire wetsuit line saying goodbye to neoprene forever.
Furthermore the extraction and processing is done by mechanical methods with the use of water, simple surfactants and potassium hydroxide. The main by-product is used as fertilizer and the wastewater can be used as fertilizer or cleaned and reused for processing. The Yulex processing facility uses very little energy compared to the refining and processing of neoprene and its synthetic precursors.
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