Are wetsuits eco-friendly?
There is a lot of talk about eco-friendly wetsuits, but be careful what you believe, not everything is as good as it sounds. Luckily wetsuit technology is developing rapidly and the biggest manufacturers are taking environmental concerns seriously. Their processes and available technology are getting better for the environment each year. It’s just a matter of time until most big brands have adopted these better technologies for their wetsuit productions. Let’s talk about the main eco-friendly wetsuit developments implemented over the past couple of years. However, be aware, this is not the case with all other manufacturers.
When wetsuit companies became more aware of their impact on the environment, limestone neoprene rapidly gained popularity. It transformed the high-end wetsuit industry for the better. Different companies have different names for their more environmentally friendly neoprene. You might have heard of Japanese Yamamoto neoprene or Geoprene, which are used in some high-end wetsuit models. Bioprene is a different version of limestone neoprene, made from seashells instead. Yulex is another alternative neoprene made out of natural rubber which unfortunately has limited availability. In an effort to make wetsuits more sustainable, until this day, limestone neoprene has the lowest carbon footprint used in modern wetsuit production.
How is limestone neoprene made?
Petrol based CR neoprene is the traditional method of making neoprene as invented in the 1950’s. It is still used in a lot of wetsuits today, even though it is much more harmful to the environment. In the 1960’s, a new environmentally friendly way of making neoprene was invented. Instead of using harmful petroleum, technological advancements opened up the possibility to use calcium carbonate from limestone as raw material to make neoprene. Japan hosts most of the limestone mines, where it is processed to form rubber chips. These chips are melted down in an oven and go through a chemical process. This transforms the melted rubber into a foam, filled with air bubbles. Thereby giving neoprene its thermal insulating characteristics. The block of foam is then sliced into sheets. Elongation, flexibility and insulating characteristics of limestone neoprene are the same as, or better than its petroleum-based predecessor.
Natural rubber and Yulex neoprene
Natural rubber can be used as an alternative to produce eco-friendly wetsuits. Locally known as caoutchouc, the latex sap harvested from rubber trees in tropical regions around the world. Naturalprene or neoprene free Yulex Pure are types of neoprene that use natural rubber as the main ingredient. However, this type of neoprene still requires about 25% of synthetic neoprene to be mixed into the process to enhance the lifespan, elongation, and quality to get close to limestone neoprene. Another downside is the travel distance. The natural rubber has to travel from a harvest plant to wetsuit factories in Asia, shipped overseas, and driven to your shop or home. All this transportation takes a toll on the environment too. However, natural rubber wetsuits are a step in the right direction, the process is not perfect and the carbon footprint is currently higher than limestone neoprene.
Recycled wetsuit waste material
To reduce waste material when making wetsuits, it’s important that the wetsuit designer develops a material efficient panel layout. This results in wetsuit patterns with the lowest material yield rate. This means better cutting efficiency when cutting single panels out of a fixed size neoprene sheet to avoid excess cutoff materials. Luckily, the biggest wetsuit manufacturer recycles their neoprene cutoff waist to be made into qualified products. Unfortunately, there are lots of smaller wetsuit factories that don’t care as much about the environment and throw offcuts into landfills.
Aqua-? water-based lamination glue
Water-based glue is slowly taking over the wetsuit industry. Remember the chemical smell of a new wetsuit? That will soon be a thing of the past. The biggest wetsuit manufacturer is now exclusively using their water-based lamination glue called aqua-?. This glue is used to laminate lining onto neoprene sheets before they are cut and stitched into wetsuits. This saves up to 600 grams of harmful solvents per wetsuit. Although aqua-? glue is water-based, it won’t dissolve in water and it is as strong or even stronger than traditional wetsuit glue. Aqua-? is another step to making eco-friendly wetsuits.
Eco carbon black wetsuits
Neoprene raw material has a yellow colour. But all neoprene foam used in wetsuits is black. One of the important ingredients of limestone neoprene is what colours it black. This ingredient can now be harvested by recycling scrap rubber tires by utilizing a new technology called tire pyrolysis. This significantly reduces energy consumption and CO2 emission during the neoprene production process. This coloring technique is called eco carbon black.
What is dope-dye?
Dope dye is a new energy and water-saving environmentally friendly fabric dyeing technology. This process is used to colour the outside and inside nylon or polyester lining on wetsuits. Usually, the fabric is knitted first, then dyed into the colour needed afterwards, which causes more pollution. Dope dyed yarns are created by adding masterbatch colorant to the polymer melt in spinning before the knitting process to save water, energy and polluted rinsing water (up to 80%). The dope dyed yarns are woven into a knit that is laminated onto both the inside and outside of the sliced neoprene sheets. The colour is deeper and fades less too. Dope-dye nylon lining is used on some high-end wetsuits, mainly in black or some other dark colors only. A bright colored panel can’t be made with dope-dye technology yet.
The lining laminated onto the neoprene panels on both inside and outside can now be made with recycled yarns made from PET bottles or other sources of recyclable polyester or nylon. This reduces plastic waste pollution that could have ended up in the ocean. This technology is expected to evolve rapidly, which will allow recycled materials to be created that are just as good as the original ones.
Solar energy is now used in some of the biggest wetsuit manufacturing plants, by utilizing solar panels on the factory roof. This reduces CO2 emissions drastically. The goal is to make wetsuit factories rely only on their own power source in the near future.
REACH compliant / PAHs free
Most synthetic rubber products such as neoprene contain harmful PAHs or Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons. These are a class of chemicals that occur naturally in coal, crude oil, and gasoline. PAHs can form a potential health risk as particles generated from these sources can bind to, or form together in the air. Strict regulations in Europe make sure that high-end wetsuits sold in Europe are PAHs free and 100% REACH compliant. So no need to worry, more information on REACH guidelines can be found here.
It is now possible to produce wetsuits with a Fairtrade classification. One of the biggest wetsuit manufacturing plants is now fairtrade certified and can produce fairtrade goods. It’s up to the brands to get the certification themselves to make the whole program fairtrade certified.
Eco-friendly buying process
The eco-friendly wetsuits cycle doesn’t end at the factory. It’s not all in the materials and technology that are used to produce them. We need to take this matter into our own hands and we shouldn’t just rely on wetsuit factories to do the right thing. Other aspects that are changing for the better for some motivated brands are carbon neutral shipping, packaging made from recycled materials, limiting overproduction, excessive wetsuit closeout sales, etc. Direct-to-consumer brands have created the benefit of less shipping miles per wetsuit to limit CO2 emissions. Working without shops and distributors means that a wetsuit can be shipped directly to the consumer. And don’t forget what you can do to avoid pollution: Remember to recycle or donate your wetsuit.
Recycle your wetsuit
There comes a time when your wetsuit just doesn’t do its job anymore. This can be after a few seasons, or maybe decades, depending on how often you use it. A wetsuit will eventually stretch out, the neoprene will become brittle, the lining could start to delaminate or holes might appear in the seams or in the panels themselves. This is when you know it’s time for a new wetsuit. Even though you can’t surf in it anymore, it would be a waste to throw your wetsuit in the bin. There are multiple ways that you can recycle your wetsuit. There are companies that recycle wetsuits into yoga mats, or it can be used as filling for a boxing punch bag. If your wetsuit is still in a usable condition, you can consider donating it to charity or surf programs that get people in need into surfing.