Material Monday: Neoprene

Material Monday: Neoprene

Posted 5 September 2016 by Nirvana CPH

This article is part of an exclusive Material Monday collaboration between Nirvana CPH and Seetal Solanki, materials expert and founder of Ma-tt-er.


Given the huge raft of stories, both good and bad, to have come out of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro – the accusations of ticket touting; the plundering of funds intended for this month’s Paralympic games; the Ryan Lochte show; Usain Bolt’s historic triple treble – it’s hardly surprising that the addition of five new sports to the games’ roster may have slipped somewhat under the radar.

Fans of baseball and softball (which are to be classified as one event), karate, skateboarding and sports climbing can all now look forward to Tokyo 2020, safe in the knowledge that their sports have been officially welcomed into the Olympic family.

The global surfing community also received a boost from the announcement, since the board sport was the fifth of those ratified by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for inclusion in Japan. At a time when surfing’s traditional major sponsors are in the midst of well-documented financial struggles, the increased exposure its inclusion is likely to bring over the course of an Olympic cycle could be a welcome breath of fresh air.

Rumours continue to abound as to the eventual venue for surfing’s debut at the 2020 games, with one Wikipedia page suggesting the competition may take place on a man-made wave in order to counteract unsuitable weather conditions and, therefore, delays. Fernando Aguerre, president of the International Surfing Association and the man spearheading the sport’s charge to Japan, has rebuffed this claim, however, stating categorically that the 40 competitors across the men’s and women’s events will be surfing on ocean waves.

Despite some fears about the spread of radioactive elements along the coastline in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Tokyo’s waters don’t pose the same risk to athletes as Rio’s heavily polluted Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon, which featured in our recent article on specially developed anti-microbial fabrics and suits. Rather, the debate around the apparel elite surfers will be wearing in 2020 is likely to centre on a combination of technical performance and sustainability.

Since the 1950s, neoprene has been the dominant material in the production of both summer and winter wetsuits. A substance that doesn’t break down under exposure to the sun, wind or water, its closed cell formation makes it extremely well-suited for aquatic sports, since it provides breathability while at the same time operating as a highly effective insulating and protective layer.

Neoprene is made of a synthetic rubber, formed through the polymerisation of chloroprene, an organic chemical compound. Physically tough and resistant to both extreme heat and cold, it has found a home in many products ranging from electrical insulation to laptop sleeves.

Due to the extreme conditions neoprene can withstand, and the various chemicals used in its production, the current potential for recycling is rather limited. Even when temperatures are high enough to start breaking it down (approximately 260 degrees Celsius), its petroleum content means harmful gases are released. More often than not, wetsuits simply lie in landfill sites, decomposing slowly over the course of almost 100 years.

But could there be a sustainable alternative to this highly polluting material?

Outdoor clothing brand Patagonia has recently developed a unique form of neoprene from a natural rubber, Yulex, that is grown in the highlands of Guatemala. Debuting this month as part of a launch tour that will bring Yulex wetsuits to surfing meccas across the UK, France, Spain, Italy and Germany, the manufacturing method claims to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by up to 80 per cent compared to using synthetic rubber. The harvesting operation is governed by Forestry Standards Commission (FSC) regulations, ensuring the responsible cultivation of rubber and the health and safety of the local communities that contribute to the operation.

If that wasn’t enough, Patagonia is also sharing their groundbreaking innovation with other companies, creating a shift towards a cleaner and less harmful materials throughout the surf industry.

Neogreene, the latest development from recycling and sustainability gurus GreenSmart, may offer another solution. A toxic-free alternative to neoprene that requires 25 per cent less energy and 25 per cent less petroleum than the traditional manufacturing process, Neogreene employs recycled Thermoplastic Elastomer, used for many years in the automotive and toy industries, and a water-based lamination that eliminates the need for solvent-based adhesives.

It’s these small steps that could see the quandary of surfers around the globe – how to balance their love of the oceans with necessary apparel and products that could have potentially harmful environmental effects – remedied in years to come.