Surf Simply MagazineThe Big Sea
The Film Exposing Surfing’s Shameful Secret
Surfing is one of life’s great privileges. It’s an activity and lifestyle that outside of the tropics is, almost without exception, facilitated in some way by wetsuits. Since the early 1950s when surfers took, via diving, the US Navy concept of wearing a tightly fitting neoprene suit to keep warm underwater, wetsuits have enabled surfing to spread into higher and higher latitudes, to become a year-round pursuit around the world, and for performance in those locations to be unencumbered by cold temperatures. Surf historian Matt Warshaw termed the conception of the wetsuit as “yet another case of better surfing through war-related petrochemistry”, which hints at the toxic and deeply unsavoury backstory that surfers have been benefitting from for the last 70 years, whether they are aware of it or not.
“Surfing is killing it. This $10 billion global industry – built on the dream of carefree spirits, crystal clear waters and an even clearer connection to the natural world – has never been more popular. Surfing has set out its stall as the champion of environmental issues. But surfing has a dirty secret… and people are dying.”
- The Big Sea
Currently, approximately 98% of surf wetsuits are made from neoprene. Less than ten years ago, that figure would have been 100%. Neoprene is the commercial name for a synthetic rubber called chloroprene invented and trademarked by American multinational chemical company DuPont™.
There is only one plant that produces chloroprene in the US: the Pontchartrain Works facility. DuPont™ sold that facility to Japanese Denka Performance Elastomer LLC (a joint venture company owned 70 percent by Japanese chemical company DENKA and 30 percent by Mitsui & Co., Ltd) in 2014, reportedly in part due to concerns about the potential cost of offsetting its emissions of the “likely human carcinogen”, chloroprene.
The Pontchartrain Works facility, opened in 1969, sits on the site of the former Belle Pointe sugar cane plantation where around 150 slaves once worked the land, on the banks of the Mississippi River just upstream from New Orleans. The roughly 5km wide, 85km long stretch of land along the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans contains over 200 petrochemical plants and refineries. The local residents are predominantly Black and low income. The area is known as “Cancer Alley” because of the higher than average rates of those who have suffered and died from cancer, diabetes, and respiratory diseases.
Within Cancer Alley, the small town of Reserve in St John The Baptist Parish where the Denka chloroprene plant is sited, is a black spot. It has the highest cancer risk in the USA – 50 times the national average. The EPA acknowledges the high cancer risk is due to chloroprene emissions from the plant.
The majority of neoprene used in wetsuits comes from Denka – either their Pontchartrain Works in Cancer Alley, or from their plant in Japan that manufactures chemically identical limestone neoprene.
Mostly unknowingly, because of the wetsuits that so many of us wear, surfing has been and still is complicit in the environmental racism that has led to unnecessary illness and deaths in the community of Reserve. It is more than an inconvenient truth, it is a deeply uncomfortable one, and it is the story that award-winning surf photographer and filmmaker Lewis Arnold and critically acclaimed writer and producer Chris Nelson, the makers of forthcoming independent documentary film The Big Sea, are trying to share.
The Big Sea is billed as an exploration of the toxic nature of wetsuits, the true human cost of Neoprene production and surfing’s links to Cancer Alley. Lewis and Chris tell the story of surfing’s addiction to neoprene and share the reality away from the coasts and beaches, on the community of Reserve. They spoke with community activists, and went to surf brands, industry leaders, surfers, cultural commentators and environmental campaigners. The end result is harrowing viewing for anybody who’s ever purchased a wetsuit, asking the question of surfers whether they can live with the true cost of neoprene, and whether surfing has the appetite to do the right thing and lead a shift away from a material it has relied upon for so long.
“Probably the most focused 50 minutes of environmental and social campaigning by surfers ever.”
Chris Hines MBE, Surfers Against Sewage co-founder
Surf Simply magazine recently sat down with Lewis and Chris to dig a little deeper.
Lewis, how and when did you first come across this story, and link it to surfing?
Lewis: I first came across this story from a colleague who was working at The Guardian at the time. My background is in photojournalism, working in mainstream media mainly in newspapers. I’ve always photographed surfing as my personal work alongside that, but about five years ago I left my job and I’ve just been trying to study photography and make surf photography my main work. I’d left my job and was doing my Masters in Creative Photographic Practice, and I got sent a link to The Guardian’s expose called Cancer Town; they’d done a year’s reporting on it. This former colleague knew that I was a surfer and the article mentioned neoprene and that’s how I came across it. At the time I was looking for a subject to base my final work on, my dissertation and exhibition that I had to produce. I wanted to find a subject that would have some life after my study and I guess it’s serendipity that I came across a subject that related to surfing that, in all my surfing life, I’d never heard of.
Chris, how did you become involved and help Lewis to develop his project into what it has now become?
Chris: I was told by a friend that Lewis was going to Reserve to film a short film about surfing and Cancer Alley and I had never heard of this link, so I went home and googled the subject. I was appalled by what I read. When Lewis had finished his short he sent it through and asked what I thought. It was a very beautiful and artistic take on the situation. We had a long discussion and decided that it would be good to work together to expand the film into a feature length documentary that played to our strengths. Something striking visually but with a strong narrative core. Demi Taylor also came onboard to Exec Produce it and it’s been incredibly rewarding to part of such a great team.
You mentioned in one interview, Lewis, that you love and are fiercely protective of surfing. Presumably the same is true for you, Chris, How have you both reconciled those feelings with the journalistic and moral urge to do what is right, and share this story?
Lewis: Initially I went into this with the mindset of sticking up for surfing, if you like. When I began looking into Denka, on their website the president’s message seemed to me to boast about how through wetsuits made of their neoprene, Denka products “are fundamental to improving our quality of life”. And it also talks about the work they do to “protect and sustain the environment in which we all share” and you know it’s patently not the case with this company. For me, that is hijacking surfing: trying to use surfing to legitimize their activities. That was my initial thought on it. But like pretty much everything, it’s not quite as simple as that because the more you dig into it the more you realise that surfing’s been doing alright out of this as well. Knowingly or otherwise, surfing has been complicit in what is an AWFUL case of environmental racism. Even today it’s still putting money in the pockets of Denka. Journalistically, it’s often the bad news stories that are good stories, but I think that the surf media has ignored this because it doesn’t show surfing in a very positive light. People know about it – media, industry - but they’ve chosen to ignore it. Really, it’s a tough one to handle, but if you’re a journalist with any integrity this is one of those stories that doesn’t come along very often. To be able to get stuck into a story like this, that is what it should be about if you are working in the media. I know on the surface it could look like an attack on surfing, but really, whilst it might be painful and controversial at this stage, it can be a positive for surfing. That’s my hope, anyway.
Chris: I guess you hope that surfing – something we love and have been involved with for some 30 years – and the surf industry, a world that Lewis, Demi and I have been involved with for many decades – will ultimately hear this story and say ‘OK, we need to collectively make a change.’ I’m not sure what it says about the surf industry if they hear the facts associated with chloroprene rubber and just ignore them… or make excuses.
This issue has been featured in the mainstream media in the past. The facts speak for themselves. How have you gone about telling it differently, why, and what do you hope to achieve?
Lewis: This story’s been reported in mainstream media, but what we are trying to do to move it along is to connect neoprene, chloroprene, and surfing. As I mentioned before, Denka are using surfing to greenwash their polluting business operation. So if they can use surfing in that way, then we can use surfing, which we know intimately, to expose Denka and their business practices. To do that I’ve tried to present it in a different way. It’s not a standard documentary. It’s a different form of storytelling, really relying on abstract elements – relying on what’s not said as well as what is said; trying not to spoon-feed the viewer. Trying to make it visually interesting, using loads of contrasts between people’s lives – the surfers and the residents next to the plant. It’s trying to use a more nuanced approach to uncover the various layers of the story. I’ve got a mantra with my photography, that if you just take a photograph of something that is just like, a surfer surfing a big wave, and it’s just a straight photograph then that is just making a statement; that is a cool wave. It’s not really saying much. But if you can try to twist it somehow, whether visually or try to find some unusual approach to taking a picture of that situation, then your photograph starts to ask a question and that’s what we want to do with this film. We want to ask the questions and get the facts out through that.
Surfing, and our wetsuits are not the only final destination for neoprene. What else is it used in, and because of surfing’s reputation for making products and issues attractive to mainstream audiences, do you think that surfing and surfers can have an impact on this problem outside of our own bubble?
Lewis: This is a common objection to the position of the film. Neoprene, chloroprene, is used in a whole host of things. It’s used in construction, in cables, wiring, it’s used in cars around the windows and in dashboards I believe, it’s got packaging uses, adhesives… But the thing is, surfing, which we reckon is about 10% of neoprene use, is by far the most visible use of neoprene. At present 98% of wetsuits are made from chloroprene rubber. Because that figure is so high, it can change quite easily. There is a lot of scope for change. It’s hard to make a good effective wetsuit. But if you can make a really good viable wetsuit using natural rubber then I guess that shows that natural rubber is that alternative – if it can function in the sea, which is a harsh environment, then hopefully surfing can take a lead on a wider change. That’s what we’d like to see. It could be a positive for surfing. But, you need to take the truth of the situation and think about that first, before that change can happen and before that positive can happen.
Limestone is often presented as a ‘green” alternative to traditional neoprene, alongside natural rubber (Yulex). Are there any other alternative or emerging materials or technologies? And what are the processes that take these alternatives from raw material to sheet foam rubber? How are each of these alternatives different and are any of them a perfect choice, or simply “less bad” than neoprene from a social and environmental point of view?
Chis: My personal opinion is that there is a pretty simple answer to the Limestone vs petrochemical Neoprene question. Nearly all limestone Neoprene used in wetsuits still originates in a Denka plant. I feel if the main raw material for your wetsuit comes from Denka, it is tied to Cancer Alley. Aside from this, as a material scientist told us, there is no limestone in limestone Neoprene. It is made from chloroprene. It’s like claiming petrochemical Neoprene is ‘Organic Neoprene’ because it comes from oil which was once an organic lifeform. It’s just greenwashing pure and simple. This is one of the main problems the surf industry has at the moment. They have been selling so called limestone Neoprene as a green, eco, ethical alternative. But it is none of these things. It is chloroprene rubber. This has been a huge headwind to change, it has prevented the wider acceptance of natural rubber – which is now as good as traditional Neoprene in terms of performance, and will soon be cheaper as well. But we should have got here a lot quicker.
Lewis: Because we’re independent we’re not here to advertise Yulex, but at present it’s pretty much the only viable alternative, just because they’ve done so much research and development. It’s improved year on year, they work so closely with Patagonia so they’ve got the know-how of what makes a good wetsuit. There is organoprene which comes from Sheico, but that’s a miniscule part of the market. Some people have suggested that the price of natural rubber has been artificially inflated to minimize the take-up, to make it seem like it’s super expensive when in reality the raw material natural rubber is cheaper than chloroprene rubber.
In terms of the processes, chloroprene, at the wetsuit manufacturer, comes in the form of chloroprene chips. These chips look kind of like a hash brown or something like that. They’re mixed with carbon black to turn it into, ultimately, a sheet of neoprene. What happens with natural rubber is those chloroprene chips are just replaced with natural rubber and it’s mixed the same. The process is pretty much the same after that point. It’s replacing the petrochemical with something that is grown on trees That’s how natural rubber works for wetsuits. There could be problems with that. If the take-up increases loads you have to think about scalability. Yulex is all Forestry Stewardship Certified to hopefully avoid issues like deforestation and that aspect of it – proper environmental damage. Also, paying a living wage to the farmers who are producing it. Yulex in Vietnam has set up a co-operative of loads of smallholders and they are operating now to increase capacity, but like all things it could be abused at some point for profit. So that has to all be considered. But really, from what I’ve seen, that is being handled quite well at the moment. There shouldn’t really be that argument against natural rubber.
You’ve kept this production independent – almost fiercely so – and it has been entirely self-funded. Was there ever any temptation to seek financial support from Yulex, whose material is presented as the best alternative to neoprene, or from some of the brands you feature whose wetsuit lines are exclusively Yulex, and why did you make the choice to keep it independent no matter how hard that has been?
Lewis: We felt it really important for the film to have some integrity. If we take money or sponsorship from a brand who could benefit from growth in the sale of natural rubber wetsuits then, even though we have always maintained editorial independence, people might argue the film has a vested interest. Difficult as it is and has been, we’ve decided to remain independent, hence the kickstarter. We’ve put a lot of money and time and effort into it so far and it’s got to the point where we need backing from the surf community to see it over the line. I think it’s totally do-able. It’s all extra work and pressure and stress but the trade-off is that we can say hand-on-heart that this is an independent film and we are not here to advertise anyone’s products. Saying that, I feel, makes the film more powerful, which is what we want ultimately. Someone mentioned the other night at the screening that there’s a lot of product placement in the film – that’s because professional surfers have stickers on their boards and that is product placement. But the surfers who are featured are ones who I have worked with for years. They’ve got the same sort of outlook on the environment and on surfing itself as I have, and that is how we have gravitated together – me as a photographer and filmmaker and them as surfers. So everyone in it I’ve worked with before and they are the surfers who I would have picked whether it was sponsored or not, so that’s another thing that I can stand up and say that’s just the way it is. Gabe [Davies, former professional surfer and now Patagonia’s Ocean Marketing Manager for EMEA] and Sandy [Kerr, Tyneside professional surfer who rides for UK brand Finisterre] I’ve known and surfed and worked with them for twenty years or so, and that’s why it may appear that there is product placement in there. Ultimately there was also the decision that we didn’t want to use any surfers who were surfing wearing neoprene in this film.
What have been the greatest challenges you’ve faced or overcome to get the project to this stage?
Chris: There has been a huge amount of passion and creative energy driving this film… and not a lot of budget. We’ve pretty much self-funded the whole project to this point, plus the Covid travel restrictions delayed the schedule too. Our time in Reserve was intense. You can feel the pressure of history. The area is steeped in racial injustice and some of the stories we heard were incredibly shocking. This is a huge topic and there is a heavy moral weight to it. The three of us have felt this over the last few years… the burden of wanting to do justice to the story of the people of St Johns Parish. I have to give kudos to Lewis for embarking on this alone at the start. I think that shows a singular determination.
Lewis: The greatest challenges to this film moves on from the point about remaining independent. It’s just been financial. COVID wasn’t great for this project, but that wasn’t great for everybody, really. The other real challenge that I have is to stay motivated on it, because it’s a big subject to be dealing with and once you peel away the various layers of race and social issues, corporate structures, vested interests, industry, you know, there’s a lot of aspects to this that I don’t naturally really want much to do with which I’ve had to bring into my life and had to confront and deal with. Also I guess a bit of guilt about how I haven’t in the past bothered to think about where my surfing hardwear has been coming from. I’ve surfed for a long time and I’ve had a lot of gear that I’m now pretty disappointed in myself for buying. It has been challenging but now as we’re getting towards the end and the film’s going to go out, and it looks like from the reactions I’ve seen recently it’s a really strong bit of work that does have impact, that’s a positive that outweighs any problems or any challenges.
And what do you still have to do, or what hurdles are you anticipating, before you reach your finish line?
Lewis: We just need a financial kickstart to pay for professional sound engineering, sound design and grading, just so the film looks and sounds as good as it possibly can on mainstream platforms. I believe we’ve shot it really creatively, really well, and it’s edited nicely, but it needs to be of a standard where a non-surfer can watch it on a mainstream platform and they’re not going to be turned off by some sort of gritty or grungy aesthetic. That’s all we need to do, really. There will be a few tweaks on the editorial because the story is moving ahead quite quickly, but we’re really close to having a strong bit of work that we can both proudly stand beside.
Over the last three years of working on this, what has surprised you the most?
Lewis: What has surprised me most has been the opacity within the surfing industry and particularly with wetsuits the absolute greenwashing bullshit that exists. Limestone neoprene is positioned as an eco-friendly alternative, when in reality there is no difference in the chemical make-up on the neoprene, it’s just a different way to get to chloroprene. Also there is an argument that because it involves an intensive mining operation of limestone, which is also a finite natural resource, that it’s actually a bigger emitter of CO2 than using oil to make wetsuits. For everyone to be buying into that as an eco-friendly alternative, that was a surprise and that is something that hopefully we can skewer through this film.
What do you hope the impact of this film will be? On the surfing general public, and the surf industry?
Lewis: As I touched on earlier, I just want this film to have the impact of getting the facts out there, and encouraging the surf community in particular not to swallow the greenwash bullshit. I’d like viewers to become a little bit more aware when they’re making purchasing decisions.
The scrutiny and debate needs to be there and I don’t feel comfortable just swallowing the marketing without question, because that’s what we’ve done in the past and that’s facilitated deaths within a community. It’s quite a shocking situation, the impact it’s had on a minority, low-income community. It might seem distant, but we are connected to it through something that we’ve perceived as being a real life affirming endeavour – surfing. In my view, it’s time to look in the mirror and face some facts, no matter how hard that might be.
Chris: My personal hope is the surf industry takes the lead in the move away from chloroprene rubber and stops putting money into the pockets of Denka. Ultimately that’s what is happening. There’s a strong argument to be made that by doing business with Denka one is helping to subsidise this plant in Cancer Alley. Is that morally and ethically right? It’s interesting to see this shift away from chloroprene rubber is already happening in other sectors. I think surfing should be leading the change - it would be a shame if the surf industry was one of the last to make the move.
What are your hopes for the residents of Reserve, Louisiana, and the people who you met and interviewed?
Lewis: My hope is that this film can contribute to putting some real pressure on Denka to change what they’re doing over there. Under the current government they are getting a little bit of heat on various areas of their operation, like the disposal of chloroprene, mainly. There’s pressure on them to relocate the school children who are going to school next door to the plant. But really a lot of the damage has already been done. There are people living there who are destined to get early life cancers that they would not have, had Denka not been operating in this way. So what we want is for the surf industry to stop doing business with Denka. To make their operation less profitable, so that ultimately they pull out of Louisiana.
Chris: I know that Robert Taylor, Geraldine Watkins, Sharon Lavigne, Tish Taylor and many more have been interviewed by countless news organisations, they have explained the health issues they have had over the years, how many generations of many families have died from cancer. Young healthy people developing early life cancers. These stories have been broadcast and printed, and yet they are still living in the shadow of this polluting plant. Surfing can help change this. Because if surfing stops using chloroprene rubber, other industries will have to confront their use of it. Surfing is a high profile user of Neoprene. Denka cloaks itself in the imagery of surfing, the blue skies and clean waters, proudly boasting that it makes Neoprene for wetsuits. We need to remove the fig-leaf of the link with a healthy and carefree lifestyle. Stop Denka greenwashing their image and remove that association – show them as they really are, a polluting petrochemical plant that manufactures chloroprene.
What action can everyday surfers, who wear to wear a wetsuit to access the benefits of the ocean, do to help the people who are suffering and paying the ultimate price because of what those wetsuits are made of?
Lewis: The action that surfing and the surfing community can take is just to be less accepting of the greenwash. It’s quite easy to move away from Neoprene. The alternatives are going to get better, cheaper, more available, and whichever alternative you want to go with, it is doable. If the wetsuit brand that you like doesn’t offer an alternative or isn’t moving into natural rubber, lobby them, message them, ask them why they’re not doing that. Ask them if they think it’s acceptable to do business with Denka. And if they do think it’s ok then they’re not operating in a way that is tune with surfing. Hopefully this film can help people to become more informed and to make decisions and have impact with their spending power.
You can support The Big Sea’s Kickstarter campaign to help fund post-production elements such as sound design and colour grading, graphics, plus music rights, legal expenses and insurance. The Kickstarter will also contribute towards the roll out of the film globally. It runs until 6pm UTC on Wednesday March 15th and features some great rewards.
On February 28th it was announced that the US Justice Department is suing Denka and DuPont, and on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is now seeking a federal court order to compel Denka to “immediately take all necessary measures” to curb emissions of the compound chloroprene, labeled by the EPA as a likely human carcinogen.