Oil Versus Limestone
As a consumer and a surfer one of the most important products to me is a wetsuit. I don’t buy these regularly but the multitude of different professions and hobbies that require one creates a wide scale demand. This demand creates experimentation with the different materials and chemicals which certainly have their implications on the environment. The most common material used in wetsuits is neoprene.
Neoprene is a synthetic rubber based material which is now being produced on the industrial scale. Neoprene is so popular because it was the first synthetic rubber developed with a unique balance of physical and chemical properties. It has good weather and ozone resistance, aging resistance, low flammability, strength, and adhesion to many substances. For these reasons neoprene can be used in many different areas and has taken over the rubber industry.
As the possibilities of neoprene increase the possibilities of adverse effects to the environment increase. The highest potential for release into the environment lies within the transfer, manufacture, and storage process. The two types of neoprene are limestone neoprene and oil based neoprene. Oil based neoprene is commonly made from polychloroprene rubber chips which are melted and mixed together with carbon black and baked in an oven until it expands to make a foamed rubber. The chips themselves are made from chloroprene monomers which are reacting small molecules. These molecules produce the macromolecules that make up rubber. In the 1960’s limestone neoprene was developed by Japan’s Yamamoto Corporation to convert calcium carbonate from limestone into chloroprene rubber chips, resulting in limestone neoprene. Limestone neoprene is favorable for several reasons; one being it is much less dense than oil based neoprene. This produces a more impermeable, more durable, more stretchy, lighter weight, and warmer wetsuit.
The most common method used to make neoprene is derived from petroleum. The many implications of this oil based product on the environment include the release of gases and synthetic chemicals into the air. Oil exploration, drilling, and extraction result in crude oil spills that have a direct and noticeable effect on the health the surrounding ecosystem. Both oil based and limestone wetsuits are nonrenewable resources that end up in a landfill somewhere.
The other method which is less commonly used is derived from limestone. The limestone is mined, crushed, and fed into a furnace at extremely high temperatures. This process is energy intensive but significantly reduces dependence on oil based products. A limestone spill is also much easier to clean up then an oil spill. Limestone based wetsuits might slightly reduce environmental impacts for a significant reduction in impact neoprene itself must be replaced by another material. The evaporation of chemicals used in adhesives and solvents must be replaced by a new innovative approach to minimizing environmental footprint.