To many, Patagonia, the name of the southernmost region of South America, conjures images of “glaciers tumbling into fjords, jagged windswept peaks, gauches, and condors.” It spans from the Andes Mountains in Chile on through lush forests, barren desserts, and the desolate steppes of Argentina. This is exactly the sort of imagery that Yvon Chouinard had in mind when he needed a name for his new company, which sold active sportswear to rock climbers and other outdoor enthusiasts. It’s turned out to be a fitting name for a company that has taken a strong stance on environmental issues.
Since its inception, when Yvon literally ran the company out of his car, selling rock-climbing pitons he made himself using a coal-fired forge he bought in a junkyard, Patagonia has not only strongly advocated for environmental conservation but has endeavored to structure its entire manufacturing process in a way that produces the least amount of damage to the environment. Nowhere is that more evident than in their latest venture to discontinue neoprene in the production of their surfing wetsuits, which fully hit the shelves in August 2016.
Replacing Petroleum With Natural Materials
Most wetsuits are made from foamed neoprene, a water resistant, insulating material that’s made from either petroleum or limestone, both of which are non-renewable resources and require the emission of greenhouse gases during their production. Back in 2005, when Patagonia first started thinking about making wetsuits, they thought hard about which type of neoprene to use. There’s effectively no real difference between neoprene made from petroleum and from limestone, although the latter weighs slightly less. But limestone neoprene requires only one-tenth of the heat it takes to refine petroleum, making its production less energy-intensive, and it eliminates the risk of environmental catastrophes, such as oil spills. For these reasons, Patagonia opted to use limestone-based neoprene for most of its products, but this still meant that it relied on mining, diesel combustion, and the relatively high amounts of energy it takes to melt limestone (needs to be over 3,600°F). At the time, however, there was no other option. In an attempt to reduce the amount of neoprene needed in their suits, they used wool in the lining to help with insulation, which might be considered unfortunate by some.
But, after Patagonia posted an article documenting their efforts to make wetsuits as environmentally friendly as possible, it came to the attention of Yulex, a company that produces sustainable, natural rubber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which helps to protect both rainforests and the people who depend on them. The ensuing partnership between Patagonia and Yulex led to a more natural, 100 percent neoprene-free wetsuit, which is now also 100 percent vegan.
Yulex specializes in producing natural rubber from a few different types of plants, but Patagonia ultimately chose to use the Guayule, a desert shrub that lacks allergenic proteins, unlike other sources of plant latex. And Patagonia has no intention of keeping this new technology to themselves; they’ve already offered the process to several other companies that make wetsuits, although the uptick so far has been slow. Natural rubber in the past has been more expensive than traditional neoprene products, but according to Hub Hubbard, who oversees wetsuit development at Patagonia, “it’s slowly starting to change.” Thanks to a company that’s dedicated to protecting our environment, the future of surfing just got a little bit greener.
Surfers Helping to Alleviate Oil Pollution
The use of petroleum-free wetsuits by surfers is fitting, given that one of the largest sources of pollution in our oceans is oil-based products. There is, of course, the obvious culprit of large, periodic oil spills that leak hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil into the sea, but according to the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, these spills only account for about eight percent of oil pollution. Instead, much of it comes from cars, which leak oil onto roads, which then gets washed out to sea, as well as boats, which are a direct source of pollution. And this isn’t even counting the 8.8 million tons of trash that finds its way into our oceans every year. Petroleum-based plastics are some of the most damaging, as they don’t degrade easily and are the main component of the massive garbage patches in the western and eastern portions of the Pacific.
What You Can do to Help
What Patagonia, and other companies like it, have essentially done is give surfers a clean option, whereas before they were only able to choose from the lesser of two evils. But wetsuits aren’t the only thing that use oil-based rubber. Neoprene pops up in everything from laptop covers, gloves, koozies, and even some clothes and shoes. Consider oil-free products before choosing these plans, and visit One Green Planet to find plastic and oil-based products alternatives.
If we all make an effort to identify where we use plastic and actively look for alternatives, we can drastically cut down on the amount of plastic pollution that finds its way into the oceans.
As the leading organization at the forefront of the conscious consumerism movement, One Green Planet believes that reducing everyday plastics from our lives is not about giving up anything or sacrificing convenience, but rather learning to reap the maximum benefit from the items you use every day while having the minimum impact.
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