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.”