Could wool surfboards solve the plastic problem?

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Mark my words, surfers could save the world.

News broke late in 2018 of a different take on surfboards. California-based manufacturer, Firewire, announced a new process of building boards — using wool to replace fiberglass.
The product, dubbed Woolight, launched this year. It was developed by a New Zealander and uses New Zealand wool, which replaced fiberglass in the structure of the surfboards.

What caught my eye? Developers immediately sought a worldwide patent on the new composite. Paul Barron, the surfboard developer who created the technology, told Sheep Central, an Australian sheep news website, he believes surfboards are “a drop in the ocean” of potential uses for the composite.

Break down

Bear with me here. I don’t surf. And, I know, I know. I’m a sheep farmer. Of course, I like wool. No, I don’t think surfers will save the world, literally.

But I use plastic bottles, cups, dishes, you name it. I have lived in places where you see how a build-up of items that take forever to biodegrade affect the environment. Heck, I’ve pulled buried plastic bale net wrap out of the farm ground that’s been there forever, and it emerges unscathed. No breakdown at all. You don’t have to be an environmental activist to see how these things work.

Plastic comes from polymers. Polymers aren’t new. Far from it — they’re part of nature. Rubber is an example of a natural polymer. An American named Leo Baekeland invented the first synthetic plastic in 1907. He used phenol, an acid that comes from coal tar. That led to polystyrene, polyester, polyvinylchloride (PVC), polythene and nylon.

The industry exploded during World War II and the manufacturing boom. It revolutionized life as we know it. But what has made it so revolutionizing is also a flaw. It could take thousands of years to break down.

Plastic problem

One of my reporters joked with me the other day that I have a story about Kenya for everything. Guilty. Here’s another one.

Nairobi had a reputation for being relatively clean until not long ago, according to anecdotal stories from long-time residents. In the past 10 years though, that seemed to change and you see the photos circulating everywhere of slums with polluted ditches. Plastic was everywhere, especially when I lived here. Even out in the country, ditches were filled with bags, bottles and wrappers.

I could not figure out why this was so, until I spent some time living in a remote village in South Sudan. People would roast corn cobs on the fire, shuck the husk off and throw it over their shoulder to the goats and chickens that lived in the village. Same with any food preparation scraps or coffee or tea leftovers. It was all biodegradable. There are no trash cans. It just got thrown out. And, yet, there was no trash lying around.

The difference was the plastic. One market nearby had started selling some wares in plastic wrappers. Soon, you saw those blowing around. Packaging had changed, but a cultural norm hadn’t. Rural villages anywhere in Kenya and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa are similar.

Getting results

Almost exactly two years ago, Kenya banned plastic bags. The problem of plastic pollution was rampant in big cities. They were finding plastic bags in cows’ stomachs, from herds that grazed in the cities and nearby. I lived there at the time. The fines were enormous, and the policemen eager to assign them. We stocked up on reusable bags.

According to news reports two years in, the government says the ban has been effective, for what that’s worth. When I visited again in February, I did notice some reduction. Everyone was carrying reusable bags, and fewer seemed to be blowing around in the wind. They say fewer bags are found in cows’ stomachs these days. Other countries have banned plastics, including Rwanda, more than a decade ago, and France and Morocco.

We may scoff at these measures and say they’re over the top, but in societies that are different, sometimes, that’s what’s needed to drive change. Not necessarily from the people right away, but from the manufacturers.

Closer to home

It doesn’t always have to come from a national government though. The Ohio Soybean Council just announced it’s opened up a lab to research new ways to use soybeans in products. The organization, which already has a progressive approach to patenting uses for soy, continues to think outside of the box.

I am watching these developments with interest — and I’ll continue to talk about them. Being willing to change, if change is necessary, is important for adaptability and sustainability.

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Farm and Dairy Editor-in-Chief Rebecca Miller was tapped to lead the newsroom in 2019. A veteran journalist, dog wrangler and traveler, she lives on a 220-acre, 325-ewe commercial sheep farm in Lisbon, Ohio, which she runs in partnership with her mother. She can be reached at 330-817-6179 or editor@farmanddairy.com.

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