Co-Authored with STOKE Snow Intern, Connor Rutledge | Cover Photo: Recyclable Snowboard Construction
Niche Snowboards, a pioneer and innovator of sustainable snowboard design and manufacturing since their inception in 2009, has made the world’s first 100% recyclable snowboard.
That’s right people—you’ll be able to buy a snowboard that can be 100% recycled along with your tall can from the lodge (or from the parking lot; we’re not judging).
After announcing their final prototype testing last winter, Niche recently made it official for the 2017/18 winter line. We interviewed Ana Van Pelt, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Niche Snowboards, to learn a little bit more about the process, how Niche got here, and how much the board rips.
First off, congrats to you and your team for this monumental achievement and thanks for taking on this initiative—it was very much needed in the industry, but without further ado, let’s dive in… Niche first started experimenting with Entropy Resins and Connora Composites back in 2014, right? How did this relationship/discussion with Entropy/Connora start and how long until you had a prototype to strap into? Were there a lot of design iterations?
Thanks so much for your kind words! Niche started working with Entropy back in 2009, actually! We have been using their Super Sap formula since day one of our prototyping process, and have used that as a backbone of our production ever since. 2014 was when we first brought the Recyclamine® hardener to our former factory, GST, and immediately began pressing and prototyping the world’s first recyclable snowboard. We were really, really excited about the project, as our goal has always been to continue pushing the boundaries of environmentally friendly snowboard construction. There actually weren’t many design iterations and the mechanical testing went very well at the factory in early 2014! We spent the 2014/15 season testing on-snow prototypes which also went well, but unfortunately in the Spring of 2015, GST announced they would be closing their factory, which put a serious snag in our plans to introduce this technology into our 2016/17 production. When we were between factories, unfortunately we weren’t able to continue perfecting things at the factory level, as every factory has different specifications that affect the way we need to have our formulations set. However this all changed once we were invited to join at The Mothership’s manufacturing facility. As soon as we officially switched our production there, this project was the number one top priority. And yes, we have undergone several design iterations due to their unique capabilities and specifications, haha.
What was the learning process like with using Recyclamine®? Did you have to change the manufacturing process/production line?
The learning process for utilizing Recyclamine® is simple actually, as we’re essentially utilizing the same kind of resin technology as usual, we just use a different hardener. The real task has been to come up with the right formulation to fit The Mothership. Their factory has some very unique systems in place that allow them to press at a lower temperature which keeps their energy footprint very low, however with these lower temperature pressing restrictions, it made the pressing time for Recyclamine® too long for efficient production timelines. So, we have been testing the use of certain accelerators that would allow us to press at a lower temperature and more quickly, adjusted formulations, and lots of other small tweaks that will allow us to get the right performance qualities, durability standards, and efficiency in production.
How does that work in a shared facility like the Mothership where you have other snowboard brands using the same equipment?
Currently, as Niche is piloting this new technology and is the only brand utilizing it, our boards using Recyclamine® have to have our resins mixed carefully by hand, and separate from The Mothership’s standard resin lines and systems.
When Capita first announced the Mothership, was Niche quick to jump on board because of its sustainable design and operational features? Where were your boards manufactured before the Mothership and how does the Mothership enable Niche to expand its sustainable design/construction capacities compared to your original (traditional) manufacturing facility?
When The Mothership’s plans were first announced, we were insanely excited to see what they were doing. We have been trying to push the conversation about manufacturing with consumers and industry folk alike for the past several years now, and to really emphasize to people how important your manufacturing is. So for someone with a much larger voice than ours to do so in a public sphere and have put so much marketing effort towards promoting this conversation, felt like a significant turning point for our industry. It sort of felt like once this bigger, ‘cool’ brand said that your manufacturing matters and that our environmental impacts are important, people even started treating us [Niche] differently. Prior to working with The Mothership we were still produced in Austria, at GST. The Mothership is certainly the most advanced and sustainable snowboard manufacturer in the world, and have not only been willing to work with our alternative materials and goals of pushing environmentally friendly snowboard construction, but they have actually challenged and ENCOURAGED us to bring them new projects that can help push us all towards a better future, together. Until this point, we have always had to fight for our use of different materials or construction processes, so to have a company wholeheartedly embrace and encourage this, is a dream come true. Niche and The Mothership are a serious match made in heaven, and we are all excited to see what we’re able to accomplish, together.
What was the biggest challenge for creating a zero-waste manufacturing process for your snowboard line and how did you progress towards this goal over the years? Did you utilize the cradle-to-cradle mentality from day one of the planning and design/engineering process?
The whole reason we started Niche at all was because we knew there had to be a more sustainable way of producing snowboards. Until we started producing boards with alternative materials and speaking very publicly about how toxic traditional ski and snowboard manufacturing is, no one was really putting a focus on this. Now, you see brands across the industry starting to talk about these things and make small decisions that are better for the earth and the people building our snowboards. So, as soon as we saw the capability to break apart our waste materials and end of life products so that they could be fully reclaimed and recycled, the goal has been to fully close the manufacturing loop and create a true cradle-to-cradle manufacturing solution. For us, the biggest hurdle was to just find the right manufacturing partner who saw how revolutionary this technology really is, and who was willing to pioneer it with us.
Are the recycled materials used in the boards (e.g. base materials, edges, ABS sidewalls), pre- or post-consumer recycled (PCR)? In either case, where are they being sourced from (e.g. other industries or within snowboarding)?
Currently, most of the recycled materials used in our snowboards are coming from the raw material suppliers themselves, and also from other industries. Our bio-resins themselves also come from the waste material of other industries, which is super cool! We’re taking a waste material and turning it into a useful product for us to use to make snowboards. It’s pretty amazing. The technology to recycle components from within the snowboard industry hasn’t existed until now with our new Recyclamine® project, so perhaps in the near future we will be using recycled components from within the snowboard industry itself!
What processes are needed to break down the board’s materials so they can be recycled or repurposed once the rider thinks the snowboard has seen better days and it’s time for a new Niche stick?
The process for breaking apart the waste and any end-of-life snowboards is essentially by putting them in a solution with a little bit of heat, that triggers a pH level adjustment which essentially makes the resins ‘let go’ so we can separate all the virgin materials, and even the resins themselves. Once we’ve separated everything, we recycle all the wood, plastics and metals, take the reclaimed resin and combine it with the reclaimed fiberglass to make these little thermoplastic pellets that can be used for any kind of injection molding! So, in the near future, maybe your surfboard fins or bindings parts will have a former life as a snowboard!
What can/will Niche do with the snowboards at the end of their life cycle? Will people be able to send boards back to Niche for recycling or through a third party partnership? If so, will there be any kind of incentive (e.g. free shipping?)
Yes, our goal is to help our customers to either send us or bring their boards back to their local shop where they originally purchased the board, in exchange for some kind of incentive on buying a replacement product at the end of its life. We would like to develop a program with our partners that makes sense for all parties involved, and that has the smallest footprint possible.
Does Niche have any new numbers on the waste, energy, water, emissions or other savings from these new fully recyclable snowboards?
We are currently working on quantifying the impact these boards will have on the market compared to snowboards made with traditional materials, but we think the impact will be significant. Even just by keeping all the waste material from production itself out of landfills and to be fully reclaimed and recycled is a HUGE step, let alone the ability to recycle our end-of-life products, too. It’s a true cradle-to-cradle solution and the first of its kind in the ski and snowboard industry, which has the ability to revolutionize this industry for us all.
Now for the really good stuff… How does the board ride?! Is it an all-mountain ripper, pow slayer, or more of a park-lapper? Or is every board in the 2017/18 line going to be recyclable (i.e. using Recyclamine®) so people can build out their quiver of recyclable shred sleds?
The model that we are introducing Recyclamine into is the Theme, which is a camber dominant, surfy, carve-y, go everywhere and make turn the entire mountain into a park, kind of board. It’s fantastic off of jumps, presses well, spins well, has a fantastic set of landing gear for dropping cliffs or hitting a big jump line, and rails groomers like a god damn champion. It’s a true twin with a centered stance, has a quadratic sidecut with two micro traction bumps outside the binding areas for added bite, grip and control, and has a core made of poplar, paulownia and bamboo with 4 basalt stringers running through it. The board is just insanely stable and smooth underfoot, and an absolute blast to have strapped under your feet.
Do you think this will be well-received by the snowboarding community (any feedback so far)? I know we’re STOKEd on it!
So far the response from the snowboard community has been 100% positive. All of our partners and customers are hyped on the Recyclamine® project and our other eco initiatives, too. It has been the differentiating factor for Niche and people truly care about the materials used in manufacturing their gear. We have measured this since 2009, and it is reassuring after all these years, that people finally understand the importance and significance of what Niche is doing.
Any thoughts on how the snowboarding industry can help to raise awareness and get more consumers to demand environmentally sound and socially responsible business practices from their favorite brands so we continue to see this type of innovation in outerwear, bindings, boots, etc.?
The biggest impacts consumers have are with their dollars. Every purchase you make sends a message to the industry as a whole. This is why you see places like Walmart with organic foods available – because more people started buying it. Consumers have so much power in dictating what brands do. Show the industry that these values are important to you, and that you care enough about them to buy a sustainably made product instead of non-sustainably produced goods, and they will have to eventually make more sustainable goods if they want to keep up with what their consumers are demanding and interested in. This is obviously a very simple answer, however I really believe that the way you spend your money can have a serious impact on the way products are made and sold.
Do you think other snowboard brands who maybe haven’t always had a sustainability mission or focus to their brand will start to take after your lead in producing more sustainable boards?
Yes, and we have always hoped to inspire the snowboard industry as a whole to be better and make better choices that produce less of an impact on the Earth that we all call home. And as mentioned earlier, we are already starting to see more companies take small steps to lessen their impacts on the planet, which is amazing, though we still have a long way to go in this industry!
Are Niche’s zero-waste manufacturing processes and snowboard design replicable across the industry?
Yes. While we would like to remain a pioneer and leader in this technology, our hope is to help other brands be able to embrace and utilize this technology for the betterment of our entire industry. As our mission is to make snowboards more sustainable, it would be counter to our mission and values to not want others to do the same. Admittedly, it is not going to be an easy switch for all brands to replicate for a variety of reasons, but could be accomplished if people are willing to put the time, effort and resources into doing so. Niche will definitely be a case study for others who want to go down the same path, which is exactly what we are doing at The Mothership.
Any recommendations for other businesses wanting to break the manufacturing mold and design for sustainability?
Oh boy… How much time do you have? Haha.
What’s next for Niche? Recyclable backcountry splitboards or snowsurf shapes (they’re hot like Hansel right now)? More sustainability goals for the future?
We are always looking to continue to push the envelope in terms of what’s possible for sustainable snowboard manufacturing, and are excited for what the future holds. We are currently experimenting with some cool new materials we see potential in, though currently, our main focus is definitely on bringing the Recyclamine® technology across the whole Niche Snowboards line. We’ll keep most of our future plans under wraps for the time being, but you can expect to see new models for men and women in the near future (2018/19?!) that we’re extremely excited about, cool new material usage and experimentation, possibly some new products from Niche that aren’t snowboards, and a continued mission of making the most environmentally-friendly snowboards possible.
Thanks for the interview, Ana! Looking forward to riding one next winter!
Head over to http://nichesnowboards.com/ to buy your first recyclable snowboard and join the revolution!