We just launched this year’s Surf Wood For Good, our nationwide free bellyboard hire scheme, now in its second year, aimed at cutting down the number of toxic bodyboards discarded on our beaches by offering a free and sustainable alternative. Find out more and view our list of rental locations here. 

Few understand this issue more intimately than Neil Hembrow of the Ocean Recovery Project. For the last ten years he’s been on the front line, organising cleanups, collecting boards, raising awareness and initiating recycling schemes. Recently we caught up with him for an in depth discussion about the scale of the problem at hand and the merits of the various ideas put forward to solve it – from hire schemes like ours, to regional bans.

DP: Hey Neil, can you tell me when you first get involved with recovering discarded bodyboards from Cornish beaches? 

NH: I started in 2010, after a Cornwall Council officer told me about the hundreds of boards that get left on Polzeath beach every summer. He said, ‘You should do something about this.’ So I said ‘Alright.’ Over that first summer we collected 203 boards from Polzeath, so I thought oh yeh, he’s got a point here. I think because they’re so bulky, volumeous and visual, when you get that many in a pile and they’re all snapped – and you think this is just from one beach – you know there’s a problem. And so it went on from there. We’ve done a number of collection campaigns since and we get lots of national media every year. We started all the awareness of this and I guess the next step, as you’re doing with Surf Wood For Good, is offering hire. We’re also hiring from campsites again this year. It’s a slightly different model to yours because we’re offering HD [high-density polyethene] boards rather than wooden ones and we charge a pound a day for the hire, that goes to charities and good causes. As far as campaigning goes, we’re doing collections again this year and we expect to get thousands. Last year we collected a total of 1500 boards and we could have doubled that easily by extending our collection period or by simply adding a few more beaches. We were seeing a reduction in overall numbers around four years ago, but we saw the amount swell again due to lockdown and staycations last year. 

Photo: Ocean Recovery Project

 

DP: Talk me through the process of recovering the boards…

NH: Whoever’s managing the beach, so rangers from the council or private beach owners, collect them for us throughout the summer. The boards are often left in the dunes – because kids surf them down the sand and that snaps them in two seconds. Or they’re left on the beach, or in the car park, because people don’t want to take them home. We found some even in still their wrappers, where obviously someone had tried to force it into their car and snapped it before it’d even been used. Once I collect them from the beach at the end of the summer, they end up in my shipping container. They’ve come over in a container from China, lasted a few days and ended up back in a container ready for recycling. And I just scratch the surface, you can imagine how many more container loads are not being recycled and just end up as waste.

DP: So beyond the obvious volume of boards that end up in landfill, what are some of the less visible environmental costs?

NH: For me, the problem with waste and recycling is moving all the stuff. We need to have a focus on the carbon footprint of the transport, as much as anything. It’s incredible really that we buy these cheap disposable items that have been shipped across the globe and last such a short time. But, we’re all a bit frivolous when we go on holiday. You know when we first started this campaign we were talking to people on the beach and we’d show them photos of this huge carpet of snapped boards – about three thousand square feet of them – and they’d go, ‘Well I just wasn’t aware.’ It wasn’t in their consciousness that this amount of waste was created from these toys. I think the culture has changed a bit. My only concern now is the companies are switching up from creating the nylon covered boards with the sharks and the dolphins to the next level: a £25 board, where you’ve still got this polystyrene core, with a couple of plastic sheets glued to the outside. They last a little bit longer but are actually harder to recycle and use more plastic. They’re being marketed as more durable now, as a spin off from all these campaigns, but in fact, they’re still rubbish.

 

 

DP: So what’s the best alternative? Obviously, we favour wood…

NH: I know where you’re coming from, I agree wooden boards are great. But they are niche and if you want to kill off the market for the kids boards, the dolphins and the sharks, you’ve still got to give them something that floats a little better than a wooden board. I mean wood boards are fantastic, but you’ve got to cater to everyone if you’re going to obliterate these cheap boards. As well as wooden boards, you’ve got to look at a quality bodyboard that’s going to last. Even if they’re being made on the other side of the world, if they’re still working 10 years later, that’s fine. That’s why it’s best to go and buy a board from the people that know, the quality surf shops, who can give you those options. You will have to pay more for a good quality board, but buying a cheap board is a false economy because they’re going to last a few minutes.


DP: Beyond sharing images of the discarded boards, is there anything you’ve come across that has really helped increase the awareness around the issue?

NH: We always try to create different things out of the bodyboards. A few years ago we did a photoshoot with Emma Skinner wearing a beautiful dress made up of the nylon covers, with a 30-foot trail on it down at Watergate. That got on 86 radio stations! It was in the national papers and on the news, because you had this surfer and model in this stunningly made dress spread across the beach. We even got into Glamour Magazine! For us it’s about always trying to reinvent it to reach more people so you’re not preaching to the converted, you’re trying to get out to Joe Public. I guess that’s why this campaign is popular, because almost everybody knows of these boards, and most people have had one at some point. It’s about creating a journey of awareness from: ‘Do you know where this has come from?’ To ‘Do you know how long it lasts and what happens to it then?’

Photo: Symages Photography

 

DP: A lot of people have called for a total ban on selling them. What’s your standpoint on that? 

NH: We’ve supported a ban, but we’ve also had concerns about it. Because where do you draw the line at what’s a quality board? Do you say, it’s got to be an HD board? Because then you’re talking big money. 

DP: And a big carbon footprint as well…

NH: Well, not if they’re used for ten years. 

DP: True, but if they happen to break prior to that, because the leash gets pulled off, or someone breaks it skating down the dunes on it, then you’ve got a much larger carbon footprint associated with the production of that than even the cheap boards and suddenly that's all gone to waste too. And as you mentioned earlier, the ones made of multiple materials are harder to recycle. 

NH: Well, with a lot of the good quality boards you can replace the leashes. So that’s something to look for.

DP: I guess to implement a ban you’d need an independent certification, attributed by someone who can verify the durability of the board.

NH: Yeh, I mean that’s something we could do. We’ve been campaigning on this forever. But then we’d have to go through testing and we cannot show bias. You could go down that route. But you’d end up with expensive high-end boards. A ban just on cheap nylon ones is going to push people towards the mid-range ones which are also problematic.


DP: I guess rentals goes some way to solving that – because if we can make high-quality boards readily available to hire everywhere for cheap (or free!), then you’re not depriving anyone of the chance to enjoy them. 

NH: Yeah. If we could get a thousand good quality boards out there [for rental], that’s going to knock out way more of the cheapies. We had one site where we gave 14 boards and they hired them out 128 times, sometimes a week at a time. So that’s probably knocked out 500 cheap ones from being sold. And once you have a certain amount of places on board, and they’re promoting the fact they are sustainable, and they are giving these to their guests, perhaps that would change the culture across the industry. Show people that it’s not acceptable to keep selling the cheap ones on their site. 

DP: I saw on your Instagram you had a hand sorting last year’s boards from the kids at Tretherras school. That looked like a great initiative both in terms of recycling the boards and raising awareness. Can you tell me how that came about? 

NH: They actually contacted me and asked if they could help strip the boards into their individual components and it was like this shining light that suddenly warmed up my life, because we had this container load of boards and me and my co-pilot Roy – who helps me out on the project – were both looking at it and saying do you know how long it’s going to take to strip those boards? Tretherras came forward and said look, we can help you here, and we’d love to do it, because it’s a great awareness event for the local kids and we said, ‘Yes please!’ What would have taken us weeks took 45 kids just a couple of hours. It was like a snow globe in that room afterwards with the amount of polystyrene balls that were left at the end. It’s such a big job. And this is why they’re not being recycled – because there’s no value in the material. You could fill up an artic lorry with polystyrene and it would only weigh 150kg, because you’re moving around air. It takes a project like mine to recycle it because commercially it’s not viable.

Photo: Ocean Recovery Project

 

DP: What if they stopped making virgin polystyrene? 

NH: Well, it’s the same with plastics generally, there is a bit of a demand for recycled plastics in products, which has got to be welcomed, but I still don’t think it would ever be viable. You can imagine just trying to collect this stuff, move it to a place where it can be recycled. There are very few people that can recycle polystyrene. It’s just never going to be viable, just because of the transport alone. 

DP: What sort of things are the boards recycled into? 

NH: The polystyrene we send is made into insulation and packaging blocks. They suck all the air out of it to make it really dense so it can be transported better, up in North Devon. As well as the dress we talked about, there’s people making wash bags and tote bags out of the nylon covers. Although the issue with the nylon is that because it’s so thin, it’s incredibly hard to work with – it just falls apart in your hand. But I’ve been given some fantastic bags, with a waterproof inside cover. I can see there isn’t a huge mark up in this kind of thing after you put all the hours in, so we welcome anyone who gives it a go. 

DP: What I hear you saying is that it’s good people are willing to pitch in to try and sort out the deluge, but because of the materials, the only proper solution is to try and stop it altogether. 

NH: Totally, we’ve got to reduce demand for the product and the way to do that is campaigning, awareness, but also giving people a better option. People don’t need to constantly consume; borrowing and hire is a great solution, whether that’s a wooden board, or a good quality foam board. 

Find out more about Surf Wood For Good here.