The Wetsuit Problem

Back in the 1950’s a weathered Californian called Jack O’Neill disappeared into his garage to experiment with a rubber like material invented by DuPont and emerged with the first wetsuit. O’Neill’s first logo was. “It's always Summer on the inside.” However as Wetsuits took off like the veritable American Dream a less happy go lucky conundrum emerged. Neoprene wetsuits allow us to spend longer enjoying the cleansing, therapeutic properties of the wild water, but they are made from some of the most environmentally friendly materials out there (including oil) and aren’t recyclable.

The pursuit of eco-friendly ways to make wetsuits is a great example of inventiveness and collaboration in the outdoor gear industry. In the 60’s Japan’s Yamamoto Corp figured out how to convert Limestone into a rubber like material. To this day, some wetsuits (Speedo’s. for example) are made this way. It’s a nice story – sea-wear made from crushed shells – and it’s a bit more environmentally friendly, however limestone is also none renewable material and the manufacturing process is highly energy intensive.

Patagonia picked up the problem when they began making wetsuits in 2008. Eight years late, they released their first Yulex Wetsuits, made from natural rubber tapped from Forest Stewardship Council accredited hevea forests, which as an added bonus, of course actually absorb carbon. To celebrate Patagonia ran a cryptic as: “We had the best weed in town and we’re giving it away.” In the small print the brand explained they were sharing their wetsuit tech with the outdoor industry.

One of the companies that began using Yulex in their wetsuits was Finisterre. However Tom Key, the enthusiastic founder of the Cornish company  realised that, “The real elephant in the room is what to do with the wetsuit at the end of its functional  life. Like neoprene wetsuits, Yulex ones can’t be simply melted down to make new material.

In 2018. Finisterre hired Jenny Banks, a surfer and graduate  in “material futures” to figure out how to recycle wetsuits. Their first prototype, biodegradable wetsuit made the headlines last year. Finisterre have also partnered with a British company, ReNew ELP, who specialise in chemical recycling processes, to begin tackling the issue of all the traditional wetsuits heading for landfill.

Finisterre are only a small brand but they are openly sharing their processes in the hope that they can inspire you and me to put pressure on the wetsuit suppliers to collaborate with them, and green up.  

 Article from  -  BMC Summit Magazine #99 Autumn 2020



Neoprene is an elastomer with the chemical name  polychloroprene. A chemical process binds strings of a clear liquid called chloroprene together. The original chloroprene wetsuits were made with petroleum-based chemicals, which are harmful to the environment. Consequently, different companies reinvented neoprene over the years to become more sustainable.

 28 May 2018 - story by MaterialDistrict



Yulex is a neoprene material made from natural rubber harvested from rubber trees. The rubber is derived from sources that are Forest Stewardship Council certified by the Rainforest Alliance, and the rubber is chlorine-free.

Yulex neoprene generates less CO2 during manufacturing compared to synthetic neoprene, but it has nearly identical physical performance in terms of tensile strength, tear strength, and elasticity.

The natural neoprene can be used for a variety of applications, including wetsuits.

The company is working on domesticating the Russian dandelion and guayule as alternative sources of plant-based rubber.



It might sound strange, but it’s common practice these days to make high-end wetsuits out of limestone rock. What is limestone neoprene, and how is this done? The world is full of surprises: We can turn a rock into a wetsuit. But it’s not a simple process.


What is limestone neoprene and how is it different from petroleum-based CR chloroprene? In the 1960s, a new way of making neoprene evolves. The main neoprene compound remains chloroprene. However, instead of using dirty petroleum-based ingredients, it’s now made with calcium carbonate from limestone. This ingredient forms chloroprene rubber chips. These are melted down in an oven and go through a chemical process. The melted substance is infused with air bubbles and baked into a block of neoprene foam. The manufacturer then slices this block into neoprene sheets. 

About the author

Mountain Biker, Surfer,

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