The plant, which was acquired by Japanese chemical company Denka in 2015, produces a colourless, volatile liquid called chloroprene, which, as the main ingredient in neoprene, has been widely used in the production of wetsuits since the late 1960’s. The plant is currently contributing to a cancer rate 50 times the US national average in towns like Reserve, whose residents are predominantly Black and low-income, which sit in the industrial corridor along the lower Mississippi River that has come to be known as “Cancer Alley.”
Lewis Arnold, a surfer from the north-east of England, first found out about the link between neoprene production and Reserve’s alarmingly high cancer rates back in 2019 when a former colleague sent him a link to an article in The Guardian. He began to dig into the story and was amazed that no one in the surfing world had made the connection.
“I’ve surfed most of my life and owned many wetsuits, but I’d never heard of chloroprene until then,” he says. “I felt duped. I couldn’t believe that Denka was making loads of money out of surfing and causing all this damage.”
Neoprene is used to make a wide array of products, from medical gloves and mouse mats to car gaskets. So when Arnold visited Denka’s website and saw the president’s statement next to a surfing photo on the landing page, it angered him to see how much the company was pushing its association with a sport that has long aligned itself with environmental preservation. “They brag about neoprene being used in wetsuits and facilitating surfing,” he says. “They were hijacking surfing to greenwash a load of toxic product.”
Arnold was doing a Masters in Creative Photographic Practice at the time, so for his final project he decided to go to Reserve to speak with locals living in the grim shadow of the Denka plant. He shared the resulting short with LS/FF founders Chris Nelson and Demi Taylor. The three decided to pool their skills and work together to expand the project into a feature length film with the goal of reaching as wide an audience as possible. The result is a hard-hitting documentary that juxtaposes the experiences of the Reserve residents with dreamy footage of surfing – a sport Arnold has loved since his teens.
“The people in this area have been talking about this issue to the mainstream media for 15 to 20 years, but nothing changes,” says Nelson, who also grew up surfing in the north-east of England and travelled back to Reserve with Arnold to conduct more interviews. “We didn’t want to do that. We want this to make a difference.
“You sit down with someone on the sofa and they tell you these horrific stories of how their mother died of breast cancer, and how their father and sister have cancer, and their young cousin died of cancer, or they have an autoimmune disease. Your first instinct is to want to burn the surf industry down. How dare they sell products that come from these kinds of companies?”
Along with pushing surf brands to clean up their supply chain, Nelson and Arnold wanted to use the sport to bring attention to the plight of the local community in Reserve. “Instead of talking about cancer and pollution in an abstract sense, we would talk to consumers about specific products, and educate them that [their wetsuits] were being produced in ‘Cancer Alley’.”
The Big Sea isn’t just a film about mega corporations stomping on the little guy. It’s also a story of environmental racism in a region with a grim history of slavery. “The area is all former plantations,” Arnold explains. “These are the descendants of slaves and, after the abuses of slavery, they’re having to deal with the abuses of the industrialised world.”
Locals had been allowed to buy parcels of land, borrowing money at a time when most Black people couldn’t borrow from traditional banks. “People built their houses with their own hands and then this chemical plant opened right next to them,” says Nelson, who notes that many of the white families who lived in the area when the factory opened were bought out. The area is now around 96 percent black.
Robert Taylor, a local activist from Reserve who features in the film, grew up before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and experienced segregation first-hand as a child. “You could have made a film just about Robert,” says Nelson. “He wasn’t allowed to talk or mix with white people when he was a child. He would go into a shop and his mother would say don’t ever look a white man in the eye, because there was a real risk of being lynched at that time.
“For Robert to grow up as he did and then take on a multinational and become such an eloquent and respected campaigner, he’s had to overcome a lot more barriers than we have,” Nelson adds. “We’re two white guys from England trying to tell this story – but surfing is a very white sport, and you have to acknowledge that. It’s one of the things you really notice in the film, the whiteness of the people who are talking [who aren’t from Reserve], from the surfers to the environmentalists.”
The film also includes discussions with surf industry veterans about the issue, who speak about the privilege they’ve had of growing up by the ocean and surfing all their lives. For Arnold, one of the most troubling aspects of surfing’s complicity in what’s been happening in Reserve is that the community is so far removed from the sport.
“The people who are getting poisoned by this are the last people who would ever dream of owning a wetsuit,” he says. “It’s not on their radar at all. They couldn’t believe that people would buy a product that is killing people just to have fun. It’s not like surfing is a matter of life or death. It’s a sport, it’s r&r.”
A note of hope comes when the film discusses Yulex, a new FSC-certified natural biorubber alternative to neoprene, which was developed with Patagonia. The brand has now shared the tech with other companies and recently ran a campaign titled: “We care what you wear – not who”, which name-checked Finisterre, SRFACE and Billabong as brands using Yulex.
Both Nelson and Arnold now wear Yulex wetsuits. “We knew we could never wear neoprene again,” says Nelson. “We have no vested interest in [Yulex], The Big Sea is a completely independent self-funded film, but it just so happens that Yulex is a great solution.”
A work in progress preview screening of The Big Sea was hosted at the London Surf Film Festival in December 2022 (it’s a self-funded, independent documentary and they’ve launched a Kickstarter to support their post production). “At the end we asked the audience, around 200 people, if they would still buy a neoprene wetsuit and no one put their hand up,” Nelson recalls. “Then we asked who would buy a Yulex wetsuit and everybody put their hands up.” They even had messages from people who’d bought neoprene wetsuits prior to the screening, claiming to have sent them back to the manufacturers for refunds clearly explaining why.”
The cost of Yulex as a material is currently higher than neoprene, which can make the suits more expensive and some brands less likely to use the material, but Nelson and Arnold have been told by industry insiders that the prices will soon come down and the ranges of wetsuits featuring Yulex will expand.
In terms of performance, a Yulex wetsuit is equal if not superior to a neoprene wetsuit, as they dry quicker and are more durable. “We’ve been told all the top athletes are using them,” says Nelson, adding that Yulex wetsuits are presently sold on the basis that they’re better for the environment, but he feels there’s a big performance win that brands could talk about too.
Surfing has long been cultivating a green and ethical image, with brands championing their environmental initiatives and products “made from recycled fishing nets or whatever,” as Nelson puts it. Now, it’s time they addressed the main ingredient in their wetsuits. Nelson and Arnold have been involved in surfing for a long time, do they worry this might affect their industry relationships in the future?
“We’ve joked that we’re never going to work in the surf industry again,” says Nelson, “but somebody needed to make a stand. Some brands are going to be making the change [to Yulex], but it’ll be interesting to see which ones try to hang in there and make excuses.”
Sam Haddad is a freelance writer who edits the newsletter Climate & Board Sports.
All images courtesy of Lewis Arnold / The Big Sea Film unless otherwise specified.