Skateboards designed by students in the Oasis Skateboard Factory.

Skateboards designed by students in the Oasis Skateboard Factory, which uses bamboo skateboards for a one-month cross-curricular unit to teach students about business and sustainability.

I was a kid in the seventies when a serious drought in Southern California left swimming pools emptied, which created the ideal environment for skateboarding to evolve from its quaint “sidewalk surfing” days, as Jan and Dean sang, to a legitimate and highly profitable industry.

The technological leaps in innovative design that took skateboarding from simply attaching aluminum skate wheels to a 1-by-4 to manufacturing equipment with advanced technological components like sealed wheel bearings and malleable fiberglass decks catapulted skate culture from a fad into a serious industry. However, according to ChasingGreen.org, there are now “more than 18.5 million skateboarders around the world” and “professional and amateur boarders alike go through an incalculable number of decks over the span of their skating careers.” That’s a lot of waste.

Design refinements in skateboarding have grown along with the sport’s evolution. New performance needs for greater speeds and more highly-skilled skaters created new design criteria. A number of surfboard “shapers,” who originally molded styrofoam “blanks” to meet the individual needs of star surfers on the California coast transitioned to skateboard design in the late seventies for economic reasons, but emerged as design pioneers.

These early board “shapers” began experimenting with new materials and technologies to meet the demands of skateboarding as a competitive sport, the expectations of commercial sponsors and the increasingly bold athletic skills of early skateboard superstars like Tony Hawk and Stacy Peralta back in the day.

The politics of skate culture today may have shifted away from Redondo Beach punk rock and angry rejection of suburban sprawl to a more post-capitalist message, but skate culture seems to be refocusing its old politics on a new ethos of sustainability. Skateboarders are back. Now skateboards are perceived as a viable means of urban transportation used by many adult commuters. Longboards and commuter friendly boards are flying off store shelves and skating has returned to the sidewalk (or urban bike path).

As a result of this renewed popularity more than a just a few skaters and board designers are exploring sustainability through innovative skateboard deck design to stay current and ride the wave of ecological responsibility. Bamboo and other renewable hybrid materials are being creatively explored in contemporary skateboard design alongside alternative in-house fabrication methods.

Even the physics of locomotion is being challenged through innovative designs such as waveboards, freeboards and other whole body skating experiences. Much of this innovation is owed to snowboarding’s popularity and technologically-savvy design progress made over the past few years, but the skaters are happy to be back in the game.

Skateboarding is also not just for Californians, nor are innovative uses of them. Here in Canada, the Oasis Skateboard Factory (OSF) is an innovative alternative high school in downtown Toronto established for kids who are at risk of dropping out of school. The OSF teaches kids the typical Toronto secondary school curriculum, but with skateboards as a learning tool and as a point of connection for all that they do in the program.

The program’s teacher, Craig Morrison, uses skateboards as a springboard for all learning. His students learn things like manufacturing and marketing by making, designing and selling skateboards. Morrison uses bamboo skateboards for a one-month cross-curricular unit to teach students about business and sustainability, and how to use design to communicate and effect change.  

Skateboarding is one of the leading contributors to maple deforestation, with over 100,000 skateboard decks produced per month in the United States alone. It takes 40 to 60 years for the Canadian maple tree to mature before it can be cut down and made into skate decks. The negative environmental impact is palpable.

Vancouver jewelry designer Adea Chung helps address this problem by making jewelry out of reclaimed skateboard decks as her raw material. Pieces like her Sk8 Threader earrings are made from a combination of discarded skateboard decks and sterling silver. Skateboarding’s historical use of expressive graphics and multicoloured lamination techniques often results in discarded waste that is expressive and bold. Like Freitag, the Swiss shoulder bag manufacturer that uses discarded truck tarpaulins for its raw materials, each of Chung’s SK8 pieces is uniquely stamped with the graphics, texture and memories from its former life.

The SF Weekly recently covered George Rocha and his San Francisco-based Iris Skateboards. Rocha makes his unique skateboards entirely from other recycled skateboards to close the loop of manufacturing, use and waste. “What better destiny for a broken skateboard than to continue being a skateboard?” asks Rocha.

Morrison, Chung and Rocha are showing us that skateboarding and sustainability are good partners and every day, new industrial designers and skaters are furthering sustainable design strategies and practices, as well as transforming industries from coast to coast across Canada. Chung will even give you a store credit if trade in your old skateboard deck towards the purchase of one of her accessories.

Thrash on, skaters and designers.

Eric Nay is an architect, designer, artist and a professor at OCAD University. His blog, Made in Canada, profiles examples of Canadian design innovation, including sustainable buildings and design, craft practices and innovative businesses across the country.

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