Where would we be without our wetsuits? Pretty much everywhere you can surf all year around in Australia, you need at least some rubber to keep you warm for part of the year. But did you ever stop and think what goes into making your wettie?
Just like this stylish old suit pictured left, most wetsuits are still fabricated from neoprene, a synthetic rubber derivative made from polychloroprene rubber chips which are melted and mixed together with foaming (blowing) agents and then baked to make them expand. Standard wetties are anywhere from around 30% to 70% neoprene blended with polymers such as styrene-butadiene-rubber or ethylene-propylenediene-monomer; materials that are also used to make things like shoe soles and gaskets. These petro-chemical additives are mixed together with the neoprene to create a soft, sponge-like texture.
So standard wetsuit material is manufactured via a cocktail of petro-chemicals before it is laminated on one or both sides, usually with polyester or nylon. These material pieces are then glued and/or stitched together to make the final shape and size of the wetsuit, and often the seams are sealed to prevent water leakage. A nylon ‘jersey’, which is a very soft material more suitable for contact with skin, is commonly used to line the interior of wetsuits. Other features of most wetsuits such as decals/logos, zips, and liquid tape means more petro-chemical glues and materials added to the final wetsuit before it hits the racks of your favourite surf shop. In short, it’s a pretty toxic and unsustainable process.
So if traditional wetsuit manufacturing is not so good for the environment and unsustainable, are there any alternatives out there? Well yes there are now that you ask…
Far less common than using standard neoprene made from polychloroprene rubber chips is to instead use limestone in the process. Limestone is a sedimentary rock predominantly made up of calcium carbonate. It most commonly forms in marine water environments and is the product of a build-up of shell, coral, algal and fecal debris that settles on the ocean floor and has been compacted by movement of the ocean over time.
So like the petroleum found in many wetsuits, limestone is also a limited, non-renewable resource that is mined from the earth. And like petroleum, it also involves an incredibly energy-intensive process in extracting, transporting and converting the raw product into a usable form; heavy, diesel powered machinery is required to extract the limestone and the limestone rubble then needs to be heated at temperatures over 3600OF / 1980OC.
For some in the industry, the jury is still out on whether limestone is an ecologically suitable replacement for petroleum-based neoprene from a sustainability stand point, and the information presented by companies utilising limestone-based neoprene in their wetsuits can be conflicting in terms of understanding its ecological impact. While we’re not ready to claim that limestone based-neoprene is a better alternative, what we can appreciate is that a handful of companies are investing in this kind of research to find a better solution to petroleum based neoprene and the other unsustainable products that make up their wetsuits.
Limestone-based neoprene products
Matuse, a Californian born company, produces wetsuits with a limestone-based neoprene, and take a strong interest in finding more sustainable alternatives to those commonly used in wetsuits today. Of the mindset that a durable wetsuit is a more sustainable wetsuit, they also strive to provide products that have a longer life to reduce the need to replace them sooner.
Body Glove Eco-Flex wetsuits feature a middle layer made from Yamamoto geoprene and an outer layer comprised of a polylactic acid blend made from corn starch. Body Glove says the energy required to make the limestone suits comes from hydropower and excess heat produced is used in an eel nursery for food production. The exterior layer, necessary to prevent cracking or premature wear with exposure to elements, requires 20-50% less fossil fuels than plastic production. Small zippers on arm pockets are made from recycled metals, and logos & decals are done with water based inks.
Australian company Adelio has just released its new K-Series wetsuits which not only features a limestone neoprene jersey, it also utilises recycled plastics. A fabric made from broken down old plastic bottles and lids is added to this the jersey to hold the neoprene in place and give it strength and stretch. The inner lining of the K-series suit is made up of 100% recycled plastics and the outer is made up of 88% recycled plastics.
Bio-rubber, a plant-based alternative
Another US-based wetsuit maker Patagonia is using a completely different approach to its wetsuits, making them from renewable, plant-based bio-rubber in collaboration with bio-material company Yulex Corporation. This material is sourced from the guayule plant - a renewable, non-food crop that requires very little water. The agricultural process is low-impact, and the extraction and processing to make the bio-rubber base uses little energy and few chemicals. At the moment Patagonia is making its Yulex wetties in a 60/40 blend (60% guayule, 40% neoprene), but eventually aims to make a suit from 100% guayule, eliminating the need for neoprene completely.
Although Patagonia hasn’t yet completely eliminated polychloroprene from its wetsuits, they are making a significant step to reduce the environmental footprint of the wetsuit material. In the company’s own words: “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”.
As Patagonia surf ambassador Dan Malloy says, “We can now grow our wetsuits, instead of drilling for them”.
Larissa from Surfrider GCT in Patagonia’s Burleigh store with some of the range of their wetsuits
The other materials that make up a wetsuit
The other thing to consider in choosing a more sustainable wetsuit is that there is more than just neoprene that goes in to a wetsuit. While neoprene forms the thick interlayer of a wetsuit, there is a host of other products that go into its construction: the outer fabric, inner fabric, decals (material used in the logo), zips, liquid taped used to seal seams and add a protective layer to areas such as the knees – these also present opportunities for more sustainable alternatives to what is commonly used. Recycled inner and outer fabrics and water based inks for decals are just a couple of examples of where companies are striving to replace the more environmentally toxic components of their products.