A Utah company's plan to phase out plastic from ski manufacture

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Petroleum is almost certainly permeating the place in which you are seated. Its goods are found in the cookware and utensils you used to prepare and eat breakfast, the soap you used to clean, and the toothpaste and toothbrush you used afterward. It's most likely hidden in your clothing. It is very certainly in the computer on which you are reading this.

Additionally, if you're a skier, petroleum products are used in the production of your skis. That is, unless you own a pair of WNDR Alpine skis.

Pronounced "wonder," the Utah-based firm has been making waves in the ski industry since its founding in 2019 as a subsidiary of the California startup Checkerspot, owing partly to its use of algae-based bioplastics in place of petroleum materials in ski manufacture.

The firm currently offers three skis, each priced at $699, with previous versions available at a discount.

If sustainability and performance aren't enough to establish WNDR Alpine as a future household name in skiing, two of the project's brains may be — Matt Sterbenz, Checkerspot's general manager of winter sports, and Pep Fujas, the company's vice president of marketing and product development.

Sterbenz, a former competitive skier, founded 4FRNT Skis in 2002, which has grown to be a market leader in park, large mountain, and backcountry skiing. Fujas is also an excellent professional skier, having spent nearly two decades with industry powerhouse K2 Skis, who named a ski after him, the "Kung Fujas."

WNDR Alpine, like its parent firm, has big goals. Checkerspot's eyes are set on American industry as a whole, believing that the success of its algae-based materials would spark a shift away from petroleum-based materials.

The objectives are more specific for WNDR Alpine, which has nearly quadrupled its employees in the last year, increased the size of its Salt Lake City plant, and plans to establish a new flagship shop on the city's west side in the coming months. The company intends to develop an outerwear line using its algal products and hopes to engage with other ski and outdoor businesses to assist them in transitioning away from petroleum.

Xan Marshland, the company's manager of brand development, describes the company's purpose as "one of material democratization."

While Checkerspot has multiple patents, most of the technology is not novel, and Marshland stated that the firm is more interested in cooperating with possible rivals than in selling its sustainability.

"We want this to have a systemic influence, rather than simply us keeping all the bio-based materials to ourselves, since we'd be fooling ourselves if we believed that one backcountry ski brand would save the planet," he explained. "However, something that has the potential to have a huge impact is universal acceptance of algal oils, algal components, and algal materials across numerous sectors... with these skis, we're going to inch as close to that as possible each year."

In an industry awash in vows to decrease emissions, carbon offsets, showy electric vehicles, and recycling programs — actions that detractors sometimes dismiss as greenwashing — WNDR Alpine has emerged as the sector's sole Certified B Corporation. According to B Corps' website, the prestigious badge is bestowed upon businesses that adhere to "the highest criteria of verified social and environmental performance, public openness, and legal responsibility in order to strike a balance between profit and purpose."

"Ski manufacturing is a tremendously inefficient process, I cannot emphasize this enough," Marshland yelled above the din of machinery at WNDR Alpine's 22,000-square-foot plant.

The majority of this waste is generated by the thermoplastic ABS — acrylonitrile butadiene styrene. In layman's words, plastic. The majority of skis are manufactured of a core made of ABS plastic, fiberglass, and wood, a base made of polyethylene, metal edges, and an ABS plastic sidewall.

And, while the completed product may resemble that of any other ski or outdoor adventure business, WNDR Alpine effectively substituted ABS plastic during the majority of the manufacturing process.

Thus far, the response has been positive. The skis can resist excessive force from Fujas and other elite skiers, gear evaluations are typically good, and Marshland claimed he can count the amount of returns on one hand.

"While wood does a good job of dispersing vibration, the algal foam helps offset that," said Fujas, who was approached by Sterbenz in 2018 while still employed by K2.

Fujas confesses he was first hesitant when persuaded to leave one of the industry's largest companies, which provided dozens of ski models, for a company that offered only one model. "But I went on the skis, and they skied fantastically," Fujas explained, and it didn't take long for him to see Sterbenz's pitch as more than a gimmick.

"Skis must bear a great deal of power," Fujas explained. "Between external factors such as heat and cold, and the forces generated just by skiing — you have to put a lot of weight on the ski, it needs to bend, and it has to behave in a variety of different ways. As a result, this helps demonstrate the true capabilities of these materials, which you can then demonstrate to other interested organizations."

From a petri dish to the snow-covered peaks

The process begins in Berkeley, California, with microalgae cultivated in fermentation tanks being harvested for oil. This oil is a predecessor to a variety of plastic alternatives, including the polyurethane substance used in the construction of WNDR Alpine's skis. The oil is transported to Utah, where it undergoes a chemical reaction that results in the formation of a solid foam.

Stringers are cut from the foam and bonded onto aspen wood to form the ski core.

Along with the foam, WNDR Alpine manufactures a liquid polyurethane that is poured into a channel cut around the perimeter of the core to form the sidewall, which is effectively the ski's side above the edge.

ABS plastic also serves as the sidewall for the majority of skis; it is sent to manufacturers in a solid, rectangular shape and is then connected to the core with resins and epoxies before being cut to create the tapered ski profile. This is one of Marshland's several unnecessary procedures in ski manufacture.

"You wind up grinding it down and losing a lot of the material you just purchased, dumping it before it ever becomes a ski," Marshland explained, noting that the algae-based oil removes any surplus material utilized in sidewall construction.

And, while scraps still clutter WNDR Alpine's shop floors, excess material is repurposed to construct ski stands. Eventually, Fujas hopes to see scraps used in everything from countertops to bicycle racks.

"I'm guessing that 99 percent of ski manufacturing waste ends up in landfills. Normally, this is all trash," Fujas explained, pointing to a trash can brimming with ski cutoffs. "What we're doing is grinding it all up and repurposing it."

The firm has also done well in the face of supply chain constraints affecting the majority of American industry, owing to its use of Michigan-sourced wood and domestic shipping of its algae oil.

While WNDR Alpine portrays itself as a backcountry ski brand, Marshland and Fujas both underlined that their goods can be utilized in resorts. They intend to release a split board – a backcountry-specific snowboard — this summer, as well as WNDR Alpine clothing.

"We iterate on everything we do," Marshland explained. "Each formulation of algal wall that we've created since we launched it is superior to the previous one, and each ski construction year after year is superior to the previous one."

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I live and work in Utah, so my news will focus on this state. I am also very into finance, entrepreneurship, crypto, and small business. I'm an owner of several businesses, from a solar farm to a sports card shop. I write about my experiences running them.

American Fork, UT
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