Sunday, 12 December 2010

Buoyancy Aid Manufacture: helping our environment sink or swim?

The ‘Personal Flotation Device’ or ‘Buoyancy Aid’ is probably one of the the most important pieces of paddling equipment you own. Most people wouldn’t think of getting in a boat without one. There are plenty to choose from with models to suit your specific needs and style of water sport. When purchasing a BA down your local paddling shop, we all have a list of criteria we want to see: Safety harness, big pocket for camera, slings, mars bars, a colour that matches your boat/helmet etc and a good fit. However, how many of you have even thought about what materials it is made from?

Buoyant foam is the main ingredient in BAs, and the selection of the foam material can not only affect product performance and lifespan, but also make a big environmental difference. To start the discussion we should point out a couple of details:

1. Plastic foams are a petroleum based product. So from the get-go, they require the use of a non-renewable resource.

2. All plastic foams currently available gradually lose their buoyancy over time.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) foam has been the main type of flotation used in BAs for the past few decades. On a technical level, PVC is cheap, easy to work with and very soft, so it produces a comfortable BA. Unfortunately, most BA manufacturers only consider the above positive technical specifications of this material and ignore the obscene amount of negative effects and health risks this material creates. The information about this material’s negative environmental and health effects is overwhelming.

The PVC lifecycle, including it’s production, use and disposal, results in the release of toxic, chlorine based chemicals, which as we speak are building up in water, air and the food chain. The results: severe health problems, including cancer, immune system damage, and hormone disruption in both wildlife and us! All humans, wherever we are, contain measurable levels of chlorinated toxins in our bodies:

 - PVC manufacture releases Dioxins into the environment. These are a group of some of the most dangerously toxic chemicals and environmental pollutants known. Experiments have shown they affect a number of organs and systems. Once dioxins have entered a body, they endure a long time because of their chemical stability and their ability to be absorbed by fat tissue, where they are then stored in the body. In our polluted environment, dioxins bioaccumulate in the food chain. The higher in the animal food chain one goes, the higher the concentration of dioxins. Guess where we are?

- So how can the chemicals in PVC affect us during use? The plasticiser Diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) is added to PVC during foam manufacture to create that soft, flexible and squishy property. As there is no covalent bond between this chemical and the PVC it is able to leach from the product to anyone using them. Studies in animals and people have linked long term exposure to pthalates can lead to various health issues...
For example, in animal studies, phthalates cause an array of reproductive problems in male offspring, including small or otherwise abnormal testes, undescended testes and abnormal urinary openings. In studies on people, boys born to mothers with greater exposure had altered genital development. Pthalates may also cause asthma as well as liver and kidney damage. Pthalates do not build up in our bodies. However, because we are constantly re-exposed to sources of phthalates, levels in our bodies can remain fairly constant.

- Following the harmful toxins released into the environment during PVC manufacture and use, when PVC reaches the end of its useful life it can be thrown in amongst the landfill, where it leaches toxic additives into the ground and watercourses. Or, it can be incinerated, again emitting further dioxins, heavy metals, and hydrogen chloride!

So, what are the alternatives??

NBR aka ‘Gaia’ foam:

Philip Curry, owner of Astral Buoyancy, pushed their main foam supplier to create an alternative to PVC foam. They responded by introducing this foam they call “Gaia”. This NBR (Nitrile butadiene rubber... the stuff non-latex gloves are made from) based foam offers a very similar weight, feel, softness and buoyancy as PVC foam, but it is non-halogenated (i.e not made with chlorine and fluorine) and does not include phthalates or heavy metals. Therefore, it is a lot cleaner, safer to produce and is less toxic when disposed of.

However, although both PVC and NBR foam could technically be recycled, this recycling process is incredibly toxic in itself and is not regularly practiced. So on a practical level, neither material is recyclable. Unfortunately, the foam cutting process also creates a lot of waste. In order to avoid sending this waste to the landfill, Astral reuse their foam scraps to make dog-beds! 

A number of paddlesport manufacturers have recently adopted the use of NBR (‘Gaia’) foam into their BA designs, including companies like Kokatat, Nookie, and Palm Equipment.

PE foam:

Polyethylene (PE), the stuff your plastic pop bottles are made of, is as you know, very regularly recycled. It requires a lot less chemicals to produce yet is much more stable than PVC and NBR, which means it retains it’s buoyancy longer. The best advantage of PE foam is that it requires much less plastic to achieve it’s buoyancy. For example, 100% PE foam requires almost half the amount of plastic as PVC or NBR foam. This means the use of petroleum for the production of a buoyancy aid using this foam is a lot lot less. It also means that BAs made with this foam are substantially lighter than they would be with other foams.

The downside of PE foam is that it’s typically rather stiff, so using it requires some creative design and construction techniques. This usually leads to more complicated construction and more expensive labor costs. Unfortunately, there is currently no recycled foam that is approved for use in BAs. The good news is any waste offcuts during manufacture or your old BA foam can be recycled just like your used plastic bottles.


Ceiba pentandra is a tropical tree native to Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, northern South America and Africa. These trees produce a fluffy fibre in their seed pods known as Kapok that is naturally buoyant and very soft...

In the early 1900s, Kapok filled life jackets were used by Naval mariners, for many years before the introduction of plastic foams. The secret to kapoks buoyancy is revealed when looked at under a microscope. It’s fibres are in fact small waxy tubes of encapsulated air! BAs made with Kapok provide some of the softest most conforming fits, and the use of this material (made up of lignin and cellulose) is incredibly environmentally friendly. It is sustainably and organically harvested, requires no chemical processing, and unlike foam it can be compressed and shipped in very small bails which make it very efficient to transport. A one cubic meter parcel of kapok can produce twenty cubic meters of finished buoyancy aids!  Another great advantage is that all of it can be used without creating any waste, unlike the cutting of foam sheets.

For BA manufacture Kapok fibres are encased in a Polyurethane bladder, a durable waterproof enclosure which allows the material to retain it’s buoyancy for much longer than any buoyant foam. Once a Kapok BA reaches the end of it’s life cycle, the kapok fibres can be cut out of these bladders and composted in your garden.

The downside to Kapok is the labor involved in it’s harvesting and processing into the buoyant inserts that go into the BA. It is also relatively heavy compared to PE foam.


As you can see, ‘Gaia’ is just one of several options currently available to BA manufacturers. Because it is the most similar to PVC, it is an easy solution for many BA manufacturers and is a great alternative for them. However, there are other alternatives which are much cleaner and more environmentally friendly. Of course the possibilities for other materials and construction methods are limitless.
‘We are constantly working to find new methods and materials to make outdoor products more sustainable, so we can enjoy the outdoors for generations to come.’  - Yonton Mehler at Astral buoyancy.

Next time you’re in the shop eyeing up your next paddling purchase have a little think about which is the most environmentally responsible product available. You will not only help by buying that one piece, but also do a great service by supporting the companies that choose to use more responsible materials. Moreover, you will help support the few material manufacturers that produce these alternative options and prove that these materials are economically viable.

Happy Floatations,

Ben x

Many thanks to Astral Buoyancy for providing information on this topic and their ongoing passion and work developing these more environmentally friendly products.