An exploration of the toxic nature of wetsuits.
The Big Sea: an exploration of the toxic nature of wetsuits, the true human cost of Neoprene production and surfing’s links to Cancer Alley.
What is The Big Sea?
From filmmakers and lifelong surfers Lewis Arnold and Chris Nelson, The Big Sea is an independent, documentary exploring the toxic nature of Neoprene production and surfing’s links to Cancer Alley.
Neoprene has long been an integral part of the surf lifestyle, with wetsuits granting access to previously unridden realms and helping many forge a greater connection with the ocean environment. However confronted with the human cost of Neoprene production, and with a greener alternative readily available, will the $2820 million wetsuit industry clean up its act and end its toxic relationship with Neoprene? As the poster-child for Neoprene, will surfing use its position to turn the tide and #saynotoneoprene.
The Big Sea is currently in post-production. Launching Summer 2024. Find us on instagram: @thebigseaorg
What is Neoprene?
The vast majority of wetsuits on sale today are made of Neoprene. Neoprene is the commercial name for chloroprene rubber, a synthetic rubber invented by chemical company DuPont in 1931 as a replacement for natural rubber. While it has a wide range of applications within the automotive, building, active and leisure-wear fields, surfing and wetsuits are the poster child for the Neoprene industry.
What is chloroprene?
Chloroprene is a toxic and carcinogenic chemical from which ALL chloroprene rubber is manufactured. Exposure to chloroprene emissions, released during the manufacture of this synthetic rubber, has been linked by the US Environmental Protect Agency to an elevated cancer risk.
Who makes chloroprene rubber for wetsuits?
Japanese chemical giant Denka makes the majority of chloroprene rubber chips used by the surfing industry. They have two factories, one in Omi, Japan and one in Cancer Alley, Louisiana, the sole chloroprene plant in the USA.Until 2015, the US chloroprene plant ‘The Pontchartrain Works’ was owned and operated by DuPont.
The Pontchartrain Works opened 1968 and rises from the foundations of the former Belle Pointe plantation where 150 slaves worked the land.
What is Cancer Alley?
Cancer Alley is a corridor of land than runs along the banks of the Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. This area is now home to over 150 petrochemical plants and factories – many of which are sited on former slave plantations. Through sustained monitoring, the US Environmental Protection Agency has confirmed that, of all the chemical plants in this area, the community living in the shadow of the Denka plant has by far the highest cancer risk in the US – 50 TIMES the national average. The EPA confirms this is due to chloroprene emissions.
The population impacted by the pollution from Denka is over 90% minority, low income and this situation has been cited as a classic case of environmental racism.
What about ‘Limestone Neoprene’? is it a more environmental alternative?
There’s a lot of misleading information circulated regarding the environmental credentials of so-called ‘Limestone Neoprene’. ‘Limestone Neoprene’ is still chloroprene rubber, made from chloroprene, prefaced with a bit of marketing to make it sound friendly. Its manufacture begins with limestone being quarried from the ground using energy-intensive heavy machinery. It is then super-heated in a furnace and broken down to eventually produce chloroprene. If this doesn’t sound very environmentally friendly, it’s because it isn’t. In essence, it’s the same principle as petrochemical Neoprene in that a non-renewable carbon source and carbon sink is removed from the ground and processed in an energy intensive way, to produce chloroprene. It has the same chemical structure as petrochemical Neoprene. If someone tells you that so called Limestone Neoprene is a clean, green, sustainable alternative, this is simply greenwashing.
Is there an alternative to synthetic, toxic Neoprene?
Yes. There are currently a number of natural rubber materials on the market including Yulex and Organiprene. Yulex is a product created and developed in tandem with Patagonia and fully adopted by a number of brands including Finisterre, Oxbow, Seea, Neon and Pride. Performance-wise it’s proven to be just as stretchy, warm, durable and comfortable as synthetic rubber with the added bonus it’s cheaper, renewable and comes from trees. As a result, more brands have begun to offer natural rubber wetsuit models within their range.
How did The Big Sea project come about?
When the EPA released its 2015 National Air Toxics Assessment it revealed that the community living in the shadow of the Denka chemical plant in Louisiana were at the top of an unenviable chart. The cancer risk to their community was the highest in the USA – 50 times the national average – and this shocking statistic was attributed to the high level of carcinogenic chloroprene emissions coming from the Denka facility.
While the report on Denka and the toxic chloroprene emissions made headlines across the globe, few talked about the link between chloroprene rubber, wetsuits and surfing. When lifelong surfer and filmmaker Lewis Arnold saw the headlines, he was shocked by what this could mean for the lifestyle he loved, so he decided to go to Reserve and find out more. He sent the resulting short film – an artistic response to what he learned – to writer and filmmaker Chris Nelson. The pair discussed the scale and potential impact of the story and decided to draw on their skill sets, working together to produce a feature-length investigative documentary, exploring surfing’s hidden links to Cancer Alley.
Lewis and Chris have been working on The Big Sea since 2020 along with Executive Producer Demi Taylor. The filmmakers have made a further two trips to Reserve to spend time with the community and record their stories and lived experiences of life under the shadow of the Denka chemical plant. The independent film is due for release in Autumn 2023.
What can I do?
As individuals we can vote with our wallets. It’s a powerful tool and we can choose the brands we support, the product we buy. The next time you’re in the market for a wetsuit, take time to think about the true cost of what you’re buying.
You can also lobby your favourite surf brand, ask them to truly investigate their supply chains, ask them to back up their green claims with facts, ask them to invest their R&D budget in sustainable materials and ask them to stop their toxic relationship with Denka. You can lobby your favourite surf shop, put them on notice and ask them to stock those brands that put people before profit. You can inform your community, your line up and your friends.
#saynotoneoprene – it’s as simple as that.
As individuals we have choice and if we come together as a community, we have power.
As surfers we’ve all been culpable, but it’s about what we do next, now we have the knowledge, that matters.
Sign our petition calling on Surfing to end its toxic relationship with Neoprene here