On the afternoon of April 3, barefoot surfers ran down the concrete steps at Swami’s in Encinitas toward ideal surf conditions. The waves were chest high and clean, with not even the slightest breeze present. To add to the near-perfect conditions, only a dozen surfers were in the water.
As serene as the conditions appeared down below, the vibe in the parking lot was intense. Surfers opened trunks, hatchbacks, and tailgates and ransacked through gear for surf accessories. While some hopped about, shoving a foot through their wet suits, others applied sunscreen to their tanned faces.
Eventually, all grabbed a scented bar of wax and rubbed it across the top of their surfboards. They applied the wax in a circular motion, the better to get bumps to form. The more bumps of surf wax, the better the traction for the surfer.
Artist Wade Koniakowsky, 53 years old, was waxing his 7-foot, 6-inch old-school tri-fin.
“When I first started surfing, 40 years ago, we used straight paraffin wax,” he says. “It was made by the oil company Gulf. Now I use…” he sifted through a backpack he’d taken from the rear of his gold Lexus SUV, “now I use this.”
The wrapper read “Sticky Bumps.” That bar of surf wax was made on the other side of I-5, less than ten miles away, at Sticky Bumps headquarters in Carlsbad. John Dahl owns Sticky Bumps and its parent company, Wax Research. Dahl has been making surf wax since 1972, when he set up a makeshift factory in the back yard of an old house next to Swami’s surf break.
Sticky Bumps is now one of the largest surf wax manufacturers in the world. According to Dahl, depending on the time of year, anywhere from 12,000 to 20,000 bars of wax are produced each day at the Carlsbad facility. The company’s main competitor is Mr. Zogs Sex Wax, based in Santa Barbara. The two companies vie for the top spot in the $20 million-per-year industry.
“It’s like a tennis match — it goes back and forth, but probably it’s about neck-and-neck right now,” says Dahl.
But the surf wax industry is in the midst of a sea change. Regular bars of surf wax are petroleum based and contain synthetic rubbers with heavy alcohol agents, or tackifiers, for extra stickiness. A new type of surf wax, called “organic,” is flowing onto the market. The organic wax is 100 percent natural, nonpetroleum based, and made from a combination of beeswax, soy, and vegetable waxes. Even the packaging is made from 100 percent recycled paper, and the ink used is made from soy.
The first company to make an organic wax brand, Matunas, is owned by Matt Mattoon. The company is based in Sunset Beach, California. Mattoon began distributing his organic wax to stores in 1998, and his is the largest organic brand on the market. “Every time you need to wax up your surfboard, there really is no need to put a glob of chemicals and oil on the top of your board for traction when abundant natural products exist that naturally biodegrade within 24 hours,” Mattoon claims. “Most paraffin-based waxes are the byproduct of crude oil, and the tackifiers and agents used for stickiness in the mainstream waxes tend to be harsh chemicals and agents that may irritate the skin.”
Torrey Trust, a 23-year-old environmental activist and founder of Surf eCo, a surf school devoted to using green products, is happy to see the movement toward more eco-friendly surf wax. “Most people do not check what ingredients are in regular wax and, therefore, do not realize that the wax is made from petrochemicals and other toxins that can be very dangerous when they rub off a surfboard and end up polluting the ocean and drowning coral reefs.”
The harm, however, that petroleum-based surf wax does to the environment has yet to be proven. “There are not any studies that I am aware of that show a surfer’s impact on the ocean,” Trust says. “Therefore, people just don’t know.”
Bill Hickman is the chapter coordinator of the San Diego Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit environmental organization. “Just like plastic and most petroleum-based products, most wax does not biodegrade,” he says. “It just breaks into smaller and smaller pieces, which can then be ingested by marine life. A little wax usually comes off your board when you surf, and sometimes discarded bars can make it into the water.”
According to Dahl of Sticky Bumps, the biggest potential for damage to the environment comes from manufacturing the traditional surf wax. “We’ve always had environmental concerns and basically made a big effort in the materials used as well as in the process itself,” he says. “The way you heat petroleum products and not let vapors out is important, and we use an extensive system to control that. It’s all steam-jacketed boilers, where we never overheat anything and put emissions out. Being green is not only the product you use but also the process.”
Sam Sciortino, the 32-year-old co-owner of Famous Surf Accessories Company, based in Oceanside, believes that the switch over to organic surf wax is not only about the environment but is a social choice as well. “The amount of pollution that surf wax puts on this world doesn’t exist,” he says. “The biggest plus of doing a surf wax organically is that it lessens our dependence on foreign oil, and because of that there’s a huge demand out there now.”
Despite the dispute about the benefits, surf companies are riding the environmental swell toward a more eco-friendly surf wax.
Famous Surf Accessories released its natural, 100 percent petroleum-free surf wax in January at the Action Sports Retailer trade show at the San Diego Convention Center. “We debuted the wax at the trade show, and we’ve already sold a thousand cases since that time,” says Sciortino. “It took about two years of trying to perfect the wax to get it to a point where it lasts longer and the quality is better. Now people are surfing three or four times without waxing again.”
Organic surf waxes have been around for a number of years, yet until recently, they never had a big impact on the surf wax market. One reason was the difficulty of making a high-quality organic wax.
“We just couldn’t get it to bead up the right way and stick the right way, because organic waxes are really oily and are totally different from petroleum-based wax,” explains Sciortino. “And really, a lot of the other organic waxes out there just aren’t that good. But we kept working at it, and after a lot of hard work we finally got it down. We made sure that ours is performance-based and just, well, gnarly.”
The problem was finding the right combination of beeswax, soy, and other vegetable oils and making them sticky enough. For one thing, the ingredients being all-natural, the batches of soy and beeswax vary in consistency and in compatibility with other ingredients. “You know, soy wax is a really greasy wax, and it didn’t really work that well,” says Sciortino, “so we had to start using combinations of soy wax, vegetable wax, and beeswax and start mixing everything together.”
The additional time and effort drives up the cost. A regular bar of wax sells at most surf shops for around one dollar and is typically applied each time before surfing. Most eco-friendly bars of wax sell for nearly three times more and are usually applied with the same frequency.
“This wax will go in the shops for retail at about three bucks, because it costs about 80 cents to make it, and then we have to package it and ship it,” Sciortino says.
While most of the companies producing organic brands of surf wax, such as Famous, are newer and smaller businesses, industry giant Sticky Bumps is also hopping on board. In March, the company shipped over 94,000 bars of its no-hydrocarbon, soy-based surf wax overseas. The new wax will be in San Diego surf shops in the summer.
“To really do this no-hydrocarbon wax sincerely, which is how we are going to do it, there’s a learning curve,” says Dahl. “I think it probably won’t be as good as our original formula, and it will cost a lot more, but it will be better on the environment. It will leave no carbon footprint — the buzz word for the day.”
Dahl, however, is not trying to compete with his own brand. His company’s soy product is for surfers willing to pay the extra price. He expects that the majority of wax sold will be the original, petroleum-based wax.
“People really have to make a conscientious choice about whether they would like to help the environment or save money,” says Trust of Surf eCo. “More people now are realizing their impacts on the environment and are choosing eco-friendly alternatives. Less than five years ago, I doubt that very many people would have paid almost double the price of surf wax for an option that protects the environment and the ocean.”
Matunas wax is the cheapest of the all-natural waxes on the market. Bars sell for around $1.50, barely higher than the price for petroleum-based surf wax. “With the volume we’re putting out,” says Mattoon, “we got the price down to where it is almost cheaper than any regular wax.”
Both Dahl and Sciortino, however, are skeptical. “I know what goes into making the organic wax,” says Sciortino, “and if you do it like we do, the right way, printing on 100 percent recycled paper and using all-natural products, there’s just no way. It’s not possible.”
According to Mattoon it’s a matter of finding the right connections and using the right ingredients. “We’ve been doing this wax for almost ten years. We don’t have any cost for packaging, all of our labels are from wind-powered factories up north, plus probably about 40 percent of the ingredients used in our wax comes from my family’s farm. At the end of the day, I’m paying way less than any of the other brands out there, and that’s why I can sell the bars for $1.50.”
Despite the high price of some organic brands, surfers appear open to using them. Artist and surfer Koniakowsky likes the changing tide of eco-friendly consumerism. “Surfers haven’t been that great about creating products with a sustainable type of vision,” he says. “Just look at surfboards and the foam they use. But I’d be into using an organic wax. There’s a lot of hype though, and I think you should do some research to make sure it really is green. I’m in graphic design, and sometimes it takes more work and exhausts more energy to recycle a single sheet of paper than it does to chop down a tree.”