Bureo Skateboards upcycles sea trash into skate decks

Made from recycled Chilean fishing nets, Bureo Skateboards' Minnow model may be the most eco-conscious deck to hit the market. Photo courtesy Bureo Skateboards
Made from recycled Chilean fishing nets, Bureo Skateboards’ Minnow model may be the most eco-conscious deck to hit the market. Photo courtesy Bureo Skateboards

Ben Kneppers, Dave Stover, and Kevin Ahearn were well on their way to becoming global citizens by the time they all came together in Sydney in 2011. Between them, they had lived in a handful of countries, pursuing their passion for board sports on three continents, but the trio of mechanical-engineering graduates felt there was more to the puzzle. They had gained a lot from their experiences abroad, but they wanted to reciprocate and couldn’t decide on how.

A little more than a year later, the three had their solution—and turns out it had been right under their feet the whole time.

Working as an environmental consultant in Chile in 2012, Kneppers began noticing the exorbitant amount of plastic pollution destroying the country’s beautiful coastline. He tried to figure out a way to alleviate that problem while using the wasteful material in a positive way. Then came the idea of making a skate deck out of recycled fishing nets. The idea gained momentum after Kneppers bounced it off of Stover and Ahearn, and the group realized that between the three of them—all avid skaters and surfers—a sustainable recycled-skateboard company could work.

Fast forward through a few years of developing lab prototypes, grant collecting, and establishing a supply chain from scratch in a foreign country, and Bureo Skateboards is launching its first skateboard to the world this spring. For the skate industry, Bureo is the next chapter in eco-sustainability. For three action-sports enthusiasts with a passion for the environment, Bureo is the manifestation of a dream—a way to help and protect an ocean community while doing what they love.

GrindTV caught up with the three in Santiago, Chile, via Skype to talk vision, product launches, and skating in the Southern Hemisphere. Here’s what they had to say.

Ahearn, left, and Stover, right, displaying the average amount of fishing net that goes into making one board; photo courtesy Bureo Skateboards
Ahearn and Stover displaying the average amount of fishing net that goes into making one board; photo courtesy Bureo Skateboards

How was this Bureo concept born?
Kneppers: I took an offer to move to Chile [in 2012] to work for a government entity as an environmental consultant. I started seeing how much opportunity there was in Chile; it’s really a great entrepreneurial environment. I relayed that back to the guys and we decided to use our professional skills and put them towards our true passions with the ocean and action sports.

The thing that really hit home was the challenge of plastic pollution in the ocean environment. I saw firsthand how limited the waste-management infrastructure was in these coastal surf towns. We needed to get people to look at the pollution problem in a different way, because it seemed like people just didn’t have a respect for it. So the first thing was to change people’s perception of plastic pollution, and then we wanted to transform it into something with a higher value where we can have mechanisms in place for people to collect it and sell it for enough profit that we can in turn put a portion back into this program so it can continue.

So how did skateboards become the solution?
Stover: This plastic problem started becoming pretty apparent and we were all passionate about water sports and skating, so it started with the issue and then the idea came that we can loop in a passion like board sports and it was a home run. We had some crazy ideas in the beginning, but when we landed on the skateboard, it instantly took up with people. Taking materials from the ocean that can provide kids and adults with joy, and something we could actually ride, was just an incredible idea. That launched about a year ago—a year campaign of working in a lab and designing a deck.

 Small, Penny-type boards have seen a resurgence in recent years. Here Bureo's Minnow gets its Santiago field test. Photo courtesy Bureo Skateboards
Small, Penny-type boards have seen a resurgence in recent years. Here Bureo’s Minnow gets its Santiago field test. Photo courtesy Bureo Skateboards

Yeah, what was that production process like?
Kneppers: We got accepted to Northeastern University’s Business Accelerator program last summer and worked in a lab to create a board, and Kevin was working on a board design. Then we met up in Chile in November to begin the plans for production. We made a partnership with a respected recyclable-plastic manufacturer right here in Santiago. Now we have set up collection points to collect over two tons of nets and we have our facility right here in Santiago, where we recycle the nets and manufacture the boards.

Where are you guys getting all this plastic from?
Kneppers: We knew we needed a consistent supply of plastic to make this work, though. The thing that really stuck out to us was Chile’s fishing industry and its derelict plastic fishing supplies, fishing nets. Fishing supplies make up 10 percent of the ocean’s plastic pollution and are extremely harmful to marine mammals. We looked into programs in the U.S., Europe, and the Philippines and decided to provide the fishermen an environmentally responsible disposal point. We were seeing how highly recyclable this material was and we saw that we could make something out of it. With my network here, with the World Wildlife Fund, we tried to set up a fishing-net recycling program, so that got the ball rolling. On the other side, David looked into the feasibility of up-cycling this material and Kevin looked into the physical properties of this material.

So which came first: the sustainability aspect or the action-sports angle?
Kneppers: It kind of went hand in hand. Yes, we started with the recycled-plastic challenge, but it really sparked with us when we realized we could combine it with something we were avid participants in. Riding skateboards to work every day and surfing all the time wherever we are, that’s where we found the thing that was the right fit for us.

Clockwise from top left: Stover, Kneppers, and Ahearn  came together as surf and skate enthusiasts before deciding to change the skate game. Photo courtesy Bureo Skateboards
Clockwise from top left: Stover, Kneppers, and Ahearn came together as surf and skate enthusiasts before deciding to change the skate game. Photo courtesy Bureo Skateboards

What are some of the difficulties of operating an eco-conscious sustainable business?
Kneppers: Every step of the way [has challenges]. We have to carefully pick our partners. We searched high and low for partners that fit our market. We got Satori wheels; Satori wheels are 30 percent vegetable oil and 100 percent recycled plastic cores. Looking at the entire supply chain, we are trying to make sure that we’re responsible every step of the way, and that obviously slows you down. If we wanted to do this with virgin plastic, we could have done this a lot quicker. But we have an opportunity to inspire people and we feel that responsibility.

Ahearn: Touching on what Ben said, we have had to set up an entire supply chain down here in Chile to collect, process, clean, recycle—a whole front end just to get to the point that a normal skate company would just be buying the raw pallet.

Our goal is to bring something unique. We know that the visual appeal is important, but the process of getting the material is the big part of our story; this isn’t a normal skateboard. This was ocean debris, material that didn’t have a use.

Is there anything else you guys are doing to be socially conscious?
Kneppers: For us, we’ve had some great advisors and influencers. We want to go about things the right way; we don’t want to grow too fast, [and] we want to prove the product works first. Right now we’re working with the fishermen to set up checkpoints. That’s our environmental give-back.

Socially we have high goals. We’re still a startup, though, so we’re launching a Kickstarter [fundraising campaign] to get the ball rolling [and] going back to the U.S. to let people know what we are doing. Then we want to head back to Chile and hopefully expand our manufacturing next year.

How does the actual production process of a recycled skate deck work?
Kneppers: We make a partnership with a syndicate of fishermen [and then] we introduce the project in a very formal presentation explaining what we’re doing, and then provide them with collection points. These are disposal points for old nets. We focus on educating them on where to put these nets.

Then we come in and prepare the nets for recycling. At this stage, that’s the three of us doing this. When we start to sell some boards and prove the business side of this thing is working, the long-term mission is to then slowly hand this project over to the communities—teach them how to clean the nets. Then we can get a bigger system and compensate locals, which gives an incentive to return these nets. We have it designed in a scalable way once we start selling some boards.

A custom Minnow sits by its source; photo courtesy Bureo Skateboards
A custom Minnow sits by its source; photo courtesy Bureo Skateboards

Who are you guys working with in the skate world?
Stover: Craig at Satori helped pitch ideas with us, so that was comforting. We’re working with Paris Trucks and they gave us good feedback. Also Chris Evans at Patagonia, who was involved with Santiago and skating in a big way before he took over there. We were able to sit down with him early in the project and he gives us constant feedback.

We’re kind of removed from the Southern California industry, but we’ll be based there this summer, so we can hopefully make some industry contacts. But we’re excited to go back and show the industry. We’re not going to be taking over anyone’s market, but we have a fun and feel-good product. I think people will be receptive to our product.

So how can we get our hands on a board?
Stover: The first board that we’re bringing to market is the Minnow. It’s a fish design, so it kind of brings [the concept] back full circle. Each board recycles 30 square feet of fishing net.

Kneppers: Where we’re at is that we’ve proven our boards. Now, with a Kickstarter, we want to produce boards for people because we’re kind of bootstrapped as a startup. We’re looking to tell our story to the masses. The first year, we probably can produce 2,000 boards. We’re aiming to have boards in the U.S. by early summer to reward our Kickstarter participants and then have some additional boards to market later in the summer.

It’s still early, but how have people been responding to your mission so far?
Kneppers: I was volunteering with my girlfriend at the Jack Johnson concert last month and I had my board with me, and I ended up telling one of his managers about the project. The next thing you know, Jack is walking through to check out the volunteer area and his manager brought him over and I’m suddenly telling Jack about the board and he’s ecstatic about it and the whole issue. When people respond that well to it, it feels great. It’s been crazy to see how far we’ve taken this idea we had just over a year ago.

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