From Recycled Wetsuits to Biodegradable Ones | Billabong

In celebration of Earth Day Surfdome presents: Billabong.

Plastic Pollution has been on our radar for years yet still, we see parks turn into miniature landfills after sunny weekends. Whether this is due to the lack of public recycling or people being lazy, plastic has become a problem – it’s everywhere.

By introducing recycling to our daily habits, switching single-use bottles for refillable ones and organising ‘cleaning’ days for picking up litter along beaches, we are making a conscious choice to clean up after us, which is great, but unfortunately not enough.

A huge amount of the plastic we recycle is exported to the Global South. After 2018, when China banned their ‘recycling’ trade, the top destination for waste has become Southeast Asia, where they often lack the means to process the waste. The poor waste management infrastructure and lack of regulation results in a ‘Broken Global Recycling System’, filling not only landfills but oceans and forests with plastic too.

Plastic Pollution is one of the biggest problems of our time. Greenhouse gas emissions from plastic threaten our ability to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius, while annually 100,000 marine mammals and turtles are killed by marine plastic pollution.

When approximately 8 million pieces of plastic pollution find their way into our oceans on a daily basis, it isn’t just the marine life that becomes affected – the plastic ends up in us humans too.

As individuals, we can only do so much to try and fix the problem. In order to affect real changes, bigger players have to take action.

As one of the biggest surf brands in the world, Billabong has stepped up its eco game by making changes in its manufacturing process. The Australian brand produces all of their new boardshorts out of recycled PET bottles, while also being at the forefront when it comes to eco-friendly wetsuits. 

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Back in 2007, Billabong launched their Recycler Series Boardshorts; becoming the first company to make boardshorts out of recycled PET bottles. In 2019, Billabong took their devotion to sustainability a step further by announcing that all of their new boardshorts will be made from recycled PET bottles. By changing their manufacturing tactics, Billabong has by now managed to divert more than 100 million plastic bottles from landfills and oceans.

But why stop there? Today, all of Billabong’s in-water products are made using some proportion of recycled or more sustainable materials, while more than 50 per cent of all their apparel products will be part of that category too by 2022.

Billabong Women’s is also embracing its responsibility as a brand by making shifts in the right direction. As for women’s swimwear (bikinis and one piece’s), every fabrication used is made from between 78 per cent and 92 per cent recycled yarns.

Billabong Feelin Salty Swimsuit

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Since water is at the heart of what Billabong are all about, the brand is working towards more sustainable wetsuits as well.

The early versions of neoprene were used to line the bottoms of landfills, which might give you an idea of how bad it actually is: this material was made to not biodegrade at any cost. On top of that, it used to be made out of petroleum, which obviously ain’t great.

Nowadays most brands, Billabong included, make their neoprene from limestone – a somewhat eco-friendlier alternative but still a non-renewable resource, the extraction of which entails a heavy environmental cost. What’s more, converting it into neoprene requires huge amounts of energy. It’s neoprene that makes up the bulk of any given wetsuit, and pound for pound it’s also the most resource intensive component.

Some recycled content, however, can be incorporated into the neoprene foam. Scrap rubber tyres are the usual source, making up roughly 30% of the neoprene foam used by Billabong.

And this year, Billabong has added a Yulex wetsuit into its range. The Furnace Natural, possibly the most sustainable wetsuit on the market, uses Yulex natural rubber – the gold standard in eco wetsuit construction – instead of neoprene foam (see below).

Still, there’s more to a wetsuit than the foam. Either side of the foam – be it neoprene or natural rubber – is the jersey or lining material, and here Billabong has a legitimate claim to be leading the field. A few years back, Billabong started trying to make this jersey lining using plastic waste. Millions of plastic bottles have thus been diverted from oceans and landfills. 

Billabong uses a combination of three different materials for the jersey fabric: recycled polyester, recycled nylon, and recycled spandex. This goes for both men and women’s wetsuits. Higher-end models (Furnace Natural, Furnace Comp, Revolution etc.) are now lined with jersey made 100% from recycled fibres; this figure drops to 83% in the Absolute and Absolute Plus.

This wasn’t however the only upgrade made to the wetsuits: Billabong also doubled down on the superpower-like properties of Graphene. 

Graphene is the lightest, strongest and most heat-conductive material in the world and won a Nobel Prize in 2010 for its properties. When added to a wetsuit, it helps you heat up faster and retain heat for up to twice as long as traditional thermal liners. For 2020, Billabong found a way to infuse the graphene into a recycled yarn, making their wetsuits even more sustainable.

Additionally, Billabong is also taking the offcuts of their rashguard production and recycling the spandex backing to the material. Rather than seeing it ending up at a landfill, it gets turned back into wetsuit lining.

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The lifetime of a wetsuit is approximately two years. So, imagine the amount of neoprene waste that is created when every surfer around the globe buys a new wetsuit every two years. Even if many brands have nailed the wetsuit game by using recycled plastic for manufacturing, none have been able to create a disposable one. Until now. 

Billabong’s Furnace Natural Wetsuit has a CICLO technology built into it, meaning that the enzymes added to the outer fabric of the wetsuit allow it to degrade when buried down in a landfill. The enzymes start to act like natural fibres and begin to break down.

When heat and pressure are applied to the suit after it’s been buried, the enzymes in the linings activate and attract the microorganisms to start breaking the suit down and eating it until there’s nothing left. 

To put this to the test, Billabong buried a few of their Furnace Natural suits in little pods and witnessed about 83 per cent degradation in the suits after 18 months in the ground.

As noted above, the wetsuit is made out of Yulex Natural Rubber, which is a combination of 85 per cent natural rubber and 15 per cent Synthetic stabilization. The rubber’s also been sourced from FSC certified farms, meaning it’s been ethically harvested.

After seven years in the making, the suit isn’t just sustainable but also feels nice and soft on the skin whilst being very flexible. The new formulation offers a 25 per cent increase in flexibility and reduction in weight. Quality sustainable products do come with a price tag but if it helps to protect our planet, it doesn’t seem like an unreasonable price to pay. In the end, the choices we make today matter tomorrow.


Billabong 5/4mm Furnace Natural Zipperless Wetsuit

By Stella Pentti

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