It's no secret that surfers love the ocean and want to protect the environment, but who knew that surfing could be toxic? In a sport that's constantly evolving, in a town at the very heart of the surfing industry where pros and brands are born, Larry Bertlemann—the Hawaiian surfing legend who shook up a generation of surfers with his unique style and approach to the industry in the 1970s—is once again carving his mark onto future generations of surfers through his company, BeBetterBoards by Bertlemann.
Larry "Rubberman" Bertlemann was on the scene of this year's Vans US Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, getting inducted into the Surfing Walk of Fame and drawing attention to an issue that is near and dear to the heart of surfers everywhere: the health of the ocean and the people who love to be in it.
"There are only two types of people in this whole world—leaders and followers—and I don't follow nobody," Bertlemann told us at his BeBetterBoards induction party on July 31. It's this passion and game-changing attitude that makes Bertlemann the perfect representative for a company started by local surfers with groundbreaking technology to keep the ocean and environment clean.
BeBetterBoards by Bertlemann uses the revolutionary BeBetterFoam product developed by the Lake Forest-based company Advanced Innovative Recovery Technologies, Inc. (AIRTech) to produce eco-friendly surfboard blanks.
"I have a little product which is really, really good. It's called a green blank," Bertlemann said, adding, "...which means the board I make and will make will not kill our planet."
Surfing is not traditionally associated with killing the planet, but surfboards containing toxic foams take a surprising toll on both the people who shape them and the reefs where they break and remain.
"You can imagine how many boards break a day in Hawaii; those boards are toxic," said AIRTech Chairman of the Board, Blake Ward. "If you look underneath the Pipeline and other places where a lot of boards break and they get stuck in the reef, you'll see that the reef is dead, and we did that in our lifetime."
Ward also explained that board shapers have died from exposure to the "horrific airborne particles" used in the manufacturing process. He said California surfboard blank manufacturer Clark Foam, which dominated the market from 1961 to 2005, "closed for a reason."
In response to the British Petroleum (BP) Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, AIRTech management joined with one of the top chemists in the world to formulate a new, non-toxic foam product made from renewable resources. Now AIRTech is stepping up to supply the surfing industry with the revolutionary product they have developed, tested and created a variety of applications for, including buoys, booms and home and cleansing products.
LOCAL COMPANY BRINGING SHAPING BACK TO ITS ROOTS
"We're a bunch of local guys that have a love of the ocean and grew up with all the surfers," Ward said of AIRTech, the parent company of BeBetterBoards by Bertlemann. "We have a love of the ocean, but we don't realize that we're not very good stewards of the ocean if we're paddling around on a board that will literally pollute the ocean and put [toxic volatile organic compounds] in the environment, kill the reefs, kill the fish. The fish eventually eat the foam, we eat the fish, what do you think goes into us?"
Clark Foam used toluene diisocyanate [TDI] in the manufacturing process, one of the last California manufacturers to do so, and faced threats of being shut down by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) before its abrupt closure in 2005 sent shockwaves through the industry and left surfboard shapers scrambling for new suppliers.
"TDI foam is bad, it's horrific," Ward said. "Where we grew up was the beginning of surfing—California and Hawaii. We did the products here, we started off here." EPA regulations and the loss of market share by local companies have caused the bulk of manufacturing blanks to be done overseas, Ward explained.
"We want to bring that back to California, take it back from the places where they don't surf," he said. BeBetterBoards has been working with local shapers to get their product road-tested by leaders of surfing.
"We've got the best of the best," said Ward. "We've got Larry Bertlemann, who's a legend. We've got his friends and associates he's going through and having them check it out. We're talking about the people that are really at the forefront of surfing, those are the ones we're working with to make sure that the product we put out there is what everyone is looking for."
Continued Ward, "We're not trying to tell them what they need, they're trying to tell us their needs. We're trying to give them a better product so that we can all enjoy this lifestyle we call surfing."
AIRTech was started in 2010 in response to the BP Oil Spill when the company began developing a foam to clean up the oil and protect the ocean, and it's this genuine desire to protect nature that drives the brand.
"All of us wanted to do something that we believe is good for the environment," said AIRTech CEO Robert Doherty, who has been bringing his wife of 28 years and their seven children to HB for decades. "Our whole goal is to clean the environment," Doherty said.
Ward, who has "been surfing before [he] could practically walk," describes the journey from concept to EPA-approved product as "arduous at best." AIRTech worked with a leading chemist to develop the revolutionary smart foam, and spent years testing and overcoming regulatory hurdles, mostly on the company's own dollar. The product was finally approved by the EPA and given the green light by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"We realized we had something very special that could help [the oil spill], we just didn't realize how big it was and how much it could help," Ward explained. Taking a proactive approach to developing the foam, AIRTech took their product to Long Beach Harbor, where they worked with environmentalist Lenny Arkinstall to string "booms" of their foam across the water.
"It was the perfect testing site," Ward said, noting that their cleanup of the Long Beach Harbor was very well received by the community. "We can actually put our booms in and create a safety area and keep that clean, proactively keeping everything out before we have a problem," he said. "It works just as well as a cleanup mechanism as well as something that can be preventative," he said.
In 2013, AIRTech received the California Small Business of the Year Award from the state legislature for their innovative practices in manufacturing clean energy products for protecting the natural environment.
BRINGING BERTLEMANN ON BOARD
Recognizing the profound positive impact of their foam, AIRTech partnered with Bertlemann to develop a line of surfboards using the foam.
"It's been a group effort. We want to bring the whole surf community in because it's not us introducing it to the surf community, it's the surf community helping us create a product that we can introduce to the surfing world that we can all be proud of," Ward said.
Always one to influence the sport of surfing with his unabashed style and full embrace of corporate sponsors, Bertlemann has become a passionate promoter of BeBetterBoards over the past five years and was brought on to be the main voice and face of the company as VP of Marketing and Sales.
"You're talking about a man who created surfing in a different way that people didn't realize could be done," Ward said. "Now he realizes he has a chance to again change surfing by bringing something that is going to be generational, so we can actually allow our grandkids' grandkids' grandkids to surf responsibly because of something he can help us bring to the market," Ward said.
Bertlemann is enthusiastic about protecting the ocean and his role with the company.
"If you're not riding my blanks or my boards, then you're killing [the planet]," Bertlemann said. "We won't let that happen...because the Hawaiian people love our ocean and our island, we always take care of it."
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