Are wetsuits eco-friendly?
There is a lot of talk about eco-friendly wetsuits, but be careful what you believe as not everything is as good as it sounds. Luckily, wetsuit technology is developing rapidly and the biggest manufacturers are taking environmental concerns seriously. The processes used and the technology available is becoming more environmentally friendly each year. It’s only a matter of time before most of the big brands have adopted these better technologies for their wetsuit production. Below we will cover 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.
As wetsuit companies became more aware of their impact on the environment, limestone neoprene rapidly gained popularity, transforming 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, and Yulex is another alternative neoprene made out of natural rubber, which unfortunately has limited availability. At the moment, limestone neoprene has the lowest carbon footprint used in modern wetsuit production, however all of these eco-friendly neoprenes have been created in an effort to make wetsuits more sustainable
How is limestone neoprene made?
Petrol based CR neoprene, the traditional method of making neoprene, was invented in the 1950s. It is still used in a lot of wetsuit manufacturing today, even though it is much more harmful to the environment. In the 1960s, 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 a raw material to make neoprene. Japan is home to 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, if not better than, the 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 process involves the latex sap being 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 in line with limestone neoprene. Another downside is the travel distance; the natural rubber has to travel from a harvest plant to wetsuit factories in Asia, before being shipped overseas and then driven to your shop or home. All this transportation takes a toll on the environment too. Whilst natural rubber wetsuits are a step in the right direction, the process is not yet 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 offcuts of materials. Luckily, the biggest wetsuit manufacturer recycles their neoprene offcut waste to be made into qualified products. Unfortunately, there are still lots of smaller wetsuit factories that don’t care greatly about the environment and throw offcuts into landfill.
Aqua-ɑ 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-ɑ. 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-ɑ glue is water-based, it won’t dissolve in water and it is as strong, if not stronger, than traditional wetsuit glue. Aqua-ɑ is yet another step towards making eco-friendly wetsuits.
Eco carbon black wetsuits
Neoprene raw material has a yellow colour, however nearly 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 through recycling scrap rubber tires, by utilizing a new technology called tire pyrolysis. This significantly reduces energy consumption and CO2 emissions during the neoprene production process. This colouring technique is called eco carbon black.
What is dope dye?
Dope dye is a new environmentally friendly fabric dyeing technology that saves energy and water.. This process is used to colour the outside and inside nylon or polyester lining on wetsuits. Usually, the fabric is knitted first, then dyed to the colour needed afterwards, which causes more pollution. Dope dyed yarns are created by adding masterbatch colourant 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 also deeper and fades less too. Dope-dye nylon lining is used on some high-end wetsuits, mainly in black or occasionally other dark colours.. A brightly coloured panel can’t be made with dope-dye technology yet.
The lining laminated onto the neoprene panels, on both inside and out, 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. The 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, reducing CO2 emissions drastically. The goal is to make wetsuit factories rely solely 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 cause a potential health risk as particles generated from these sources can bind to or form small particles 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 down to the brands to get the certification themselves, as the entire programme needs to be fairtrade certified.
Eco-friendly buying process
The eco-friendly wetsuit cycle doesn’t end at the factory, it’s not all in the materials and technology that are used to produce them. We ourselves need to take this matter into our own hands and we shouldn’t rely only on wetsuit factories doing 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 and excessive wetsuit clearance 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; 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 even decades, depending on how often you use it. A wetsuit will eventually stretch out, the neoprene will become brittle, the lining may start to delaminate or holes might appear in the seams or panels. 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 and there are multiple ways that you can recycle your old 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 could donate it to charity or a surf programme that helps people in need access surfing.