Can you really splash around in the sea in winter and stay warm? Modern wetsuit designers say yes - and you can be green too.
The first time I ever wore a wetsuit was to go surfing in the North Sea in spring, when the water is at its coldest. This was in the late 1970s when wetsuits were more a means of slowing down the onset of hypothermia than actually keeping you warm. My more experienced surfie mates had a trick up their sleeve for dealing with this - once I’d squeezed into my ill-fitting rubber suit, they poured the contents of a flask of hot coffee inside it…
Fortunately, wetsuits have improved somewhat since then and the user these days is only required to bring along a flask of hot Americano as an après-surf beverage rather than a heating accessory.
Although modern wetsuits may be much more effective at keeping you warm and comfortable (another feature of those old wetsuits was their ability to leave sores and rashes on any area subject to friction, such as around the armpits and the neck), they still face two other major problems: they’re far from environmentally friendly and they’re not often specifically designed for the ‘average’ recreational water user.
Surfing and associated water sports such as kite and windsurfing have long had a dilemma, for while they all focus on the natural environment as both an arena and a playground, virtually every piece of equipment used in these sports has until recently relied heavily on petrochemicals.
Surfboards, windsurf sails, kites, surf leashes and even surf waxes are largely derived from petrochemicals which sits at odds with the image water sport likes to project. Wetsuits are no exception.
Todd Copeland, who works on the fabric development team of US outdoor gear manufacturer Patagonia, explains that “a wetsuit is basically made of foamed rubber, sometimes called a sponge. It can be laminated on one or two sides to fabric, usually polyester or nylon in a jersey knit. The pieces are glued and/or stitched together to make a wetsuit, and then the seams can be sealed to prevent water leakage.
“The sponge is made from polychloroprene rubber chips, commonly called neoprene. These are melted and mixed together with foaming agents and pigment, usually carbon black, and baked in an oven to make it expand.
“To make the polychloroprene chips, the manufacturer polymerises chloroprene monomers which means reacting small molecules together to produce the large macromolecules (polymers) that make up rubber.
“There are two methods of manufacturing chloroprene monomer. The most common method takes butadiene derived from petroleum through a two-step process of chlorination and subsequent dehydrochlorination. The less commonly used method is to dimerise acetylene and then hydrochlorinate the dimer. The acetylene for this method is derived from limestone”.
He emphasises that both methods have a considerable environmental impact, hence Patagonia’s recent decision to launch a range of ‘Yulex’ wetsuits. These use an alternative source of latex derived from the guayule plant, a flowering shrub that is native to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. It is also hypoallergenic.
The name of the wetsuit derives from the manufacturer of this material, Yulex, a US corporation that specialises in producing agricultural-based biomaterials designed to replace petroleum-based rubber products. The residual agricultural materials are used as a feedstock for bioenergy, all of which sits well with Patagonia’s high-profile eco-friendly approach to manufacturing and developing its outdoor products.
Patagonia’s European surf manager Gabe Davies, one of the world’s foremost big-wave surfers, explains that “when Patagonia first started making wetsuits, we quickly identified neoprene as a material that needed improvements to lessen its environmental impact. In our initial search for alternative materials, we discovered we could use neoprene made from limestone instead of petroleum.
“Although using less petroleum seemed like a good move, limestone is still a limited, non-renewable resource that is mined with heavy extractive equipment and heated to extremely high temperatures to remove chemical components, so the net environmental benefit of using limestone over petroleum really wasn’t that much different.
“So we began a collaborative long-term research and development project with Yulex to develop a wetsuit material from guayule rubber”.
The guayule plants are not grown organically, but they do use low amounts of synthetic inputs and water. During their growth, the plants absorb and sequester carbon from the atmosphere and are harvested in a way that allows the roots to stay in the ground for an average of four years. This reduces the soil and carbon loss associated with constant tilling and replanting of typical cropland.
In short, the agriculture is low-impact and the extraction and processing uses little energy, few chemicals and is done by mechanical methods using only water, simple surfactants and potassium hydroxide.
The main by-product and waste water is used as fertiliser. The waste water can also be cleaned and reused for processing; the Yulex processing facility uses very little energy compared to the refining and processing of neoprene and its synthetic precursors.
Patagonia has offered this technology openly to the surf industry in the hope of changing the reliance on petrochemical-?based neoprene for wetsuit manufacture. “This should bring prices down as a result of increased volume of sales, making them available to more users,” says Davies.
However, this new technology is not completely eliminating neoprene from wetsuits, and as a result Patagonia is planning to introduce the world’s first completely neoprene-free wetsuits next autumn. This is after considerable research with Yulex Corporation into using traditional hevea rubber in place of guayule.
The entire line of Patagonia’s new high performance wetsuits will be made with a natural rubber developed by Yulex and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), certified by the Rainforest Alliance, an international non-profit organisation dedicated to the conservation of tropical forests.
Hub Hubbard, Patagonia wetsuits product line manager, says: “These neoprene-free Yulex wetsuits perform better than Patagonia’s traditional neoprene wetsuits and they’re extremely durable. By using natural rubber in the suits we are reducing the CO2 emissions required to produce traditional neoprene suits by up to 80 per cent.”
The FSC-certified rubber is blended with a seven per cent synthetic rubber/eight per cent filler polymer compounds mix. The filler compounds remain the only part of the wetsuit not made from enviro-friendly products since these are required to give the wetsuit the required flexibility, durability and UV resistance. Unfortunately there are no alternatives at present.
As with their current guayule derived wetsuits, Patagonia and Yulex will again share this innovation with other companies, hoping to create a shift toward using cleaner and better materials throughout the surf industry.
Jeff Martin, founder and CEO of Yulex Corporation, says that collaboration between the two companies “has been an example of how sustainable products can be brought to customers without sacrificing performance and cost competitiveness”.
Patagonia’s 2016 wetsuit line also introduces a range of innovative design features in addition to using neoprene-free rubber. They have new fast-drying thermal linings and a ‘floating’ front zip design in some models, plus more traditional back zip designs in others.
The wetsuit’s inverted microgrid lining dries more quickly, creating a lighter suit while maintaining excellent warmth. The floating front zip design helps to increase the wetsuit’s lifespan by putting less stress on the rubber when the suit is put on and taken off. It also features an asymmetrical flap for better stretch, seal and mobility and, uniquely in wetsuit designs, the zipper is replaceable.
Featuring wetsuits rated for six different temperature levels, Patagonia’s new collection will be designed for water temperatures from 23°C down to 0°C and consists of 21 different models for men, women and children, unlike the current Yulex wetsuits, which are only available in two styles for men.
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