Oil probably permeates the room you are sitting in. Its products can be found in the kitchen utensils you used to cook and eat your breakfast, the soap you used to wash yourself with, the toothpaste and toothbrush you used when you finished eating. It’s probably in your clothes. It is certainly on the computer that you are using to read this.
And if you are a skier, petroleum products are an integral part of the construction of your ski. Unless you own a pair of WNDR alpine skis, of course.
Pronounced ‘wonder,’ the Utah-based company has been making waves in the ski industry since launching in 2019 as an arm of California-based startup Checkerspot, in large part due to its use of bioplastics made from seaweed as a substitute for petroleum products in the manufacture of skis.
You read that right: algae. When one thinks of a sustainable alternative to plastic in the aforementioned household items, seaweed is likely not to come to mind. But for its third year in the ski industry, WNDR Alpine’s AlgalTech is proving to be a reliable and cost-effective substitute for petroleum-based plastics.
The company now has three skis in its product line, each priced at $ 699, with older models being offered at a discount.
If durability and performance weren’t enough to position WNDR Alpine as a future big name in skiing, two of the brains behind the project could be: Matt Sterbenz, General Manager Winter Sports at Checkerspot, and Pep Fujas, Vice President of the company’s marketing and product development.
A former professional skier, Sterbenz launched 4FRNT Skis in 2002, which has become a leading innovator in park, mountain and off-piste skiing. Fujas is also an accomplished professional skier, with nearly two decades as an athlete for industry giant K2 Skis, who even launched a ski bearing his name, the “Kung Fujas”.
WNDR Alpine and its parent company have big aspirations. Checkerspot is targeting American manufacturing as a whole, hoping that the success of its algae-based materials may provide an incentive to move away from petroleum products.
Goals are more focused for fast-growing WNDR Alpine, which last year nearly doubled its workforce, tripled the size of its Salt Lake City plant, and hopes to open a new flagship store in the city’s west end. in the coming months. The company plans to use its seaweed products to launch a clothing line and wants to partner with other ski and outdoor companies to help them move away from oil.
Xan Marshland, brand development manager, calls the company’s mission “democratization of materials.”
Although Checkerspot holds multiple patents, much of the technology is not new, and Marshland said the company is focusing more on partnering with potential competitors, rather than leveraging its sustainability as a marketing ploy. .
“We want this to have as much of a systemic impact as possible, rather than just keeping all the bio-based materials to ourselves, because we should be kidding ourselves into thinking that a ski touring line is going to save the world,” he said. he declared. “But something that could actually have a significant impact is the widespread adoption of algae oils, algae ingredients, and algae materials across multiple industries … with these skis, we’re going to get closer. as much of that as possible, every year. ”
In an industry teeming with company commitments to cut emissions, carbon offsets, flashy electric vehicles, and recycling programs – steps skeptics often call greenwashing – WNDR Alpine is became the only manufacturer of ski equipment considered a B certified company. The prestigious label is awarded to companies with “the highest standards in verified social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal responsibility to balance profit and the objective ” according to B Corps website.
“Ski making is an incredibly wasteful process, I can’t stress this enough,” Marshland shouted over the hum of machines at WNDR Alpines’ 22,000 square foot factory.
Much of this waste comes from the use of thermoplastic ABS – acrylonitrile butadiene styrene. Plastic, in simple terms. Most skis are constructed using a mix of ABS plastic, fiberglass and wood for the core, polyethylene material for the base, metal edges and an ABS plastic sidewall.
And while the finished product of WNDR Alpine may look like that of any other ski company, it has successfully replaced ABS plastic in most stages of production.
So far, the feedback has been good. The skis can withstand the excessive stress of Fujas and other professional athletes, equipment reviews are generally positive, and Marshland said he can count how many returns the company has gotten on one side.
“The wood distributes the vibrations a lot, but the algae moss helps mitigate that,” said Fujas, who was approached by Sterbenz in 2018 while still under contract with K2.
Fujas admits he was initially skeptical when asked to leave one of the biggest names in the industry, which had dozens of skis in its product line, for a startup that at the time only offered only one model. “But I got on the skis and they skied really well,” said Fujas, and it didn’t take long for him to see Sterbenz’s pitch as more than a gimmick.
“The skis have to withstand a lot of force,” said Fujas. “Between the environment, the heat, the cold and the forces that are applied just through the action of the ski itself – you have to put a lot of weight on the ski, it has to bend, it has to work in different ways. So that helps to really prove what these materials are capable of, so that you can present it to other interested companies. ”
From the Petri dish to the tracks
The process begins in Berkeley, California, where the oil is extracted from microalgae grown in fermentation tanks. This oil is a precursor to a number of plastic substitutes, including the polyurethane material used in WNDR Alpine skis. The oil is shipped to Utah, where a chemical reaction produces a solid foam.
The foam is cut into stringers – narrow strips that are laminated against aspen wood to create the core of the ski.
In addition to the foam, WNDR Alpine makes a liquid polyurethane which is poured into a channel cut around the perimeter of the core to create the sidewall, essentially the side of the ski above the edge.
ABS plastic is also the sidewall of most skis, shipped to businesses in a solid rectangular shape, attached to the core with resins and epoxies, and then cut to create the tapered ski profile. This is one of the many unnecessary steps in ski production highlighted by Marshland.
“You end up grinding it up and wasting a lot of the material you just bought, putting it straight into the landfill before it even becomes a ski,” Marshland said, noting that the oil-based algae removes any excess material used in the sidewall. construction.
And while there is still a lot of trash littering the floors of WNDR Alpine stores, instead of throwing it in the trash, leftover materials are recycled to make ski racks. Ultimately, Fujas wants to see the leftovers used to create anything from counters to bike racks.
“I guess in 99% of the ski manufacturing, that product goes straight to the landfill. So it’s just rubbish, usually, ”Fujas said, pointing to a trash can full of ski scraps. “What we’re doing is rectifying everything and using it in a new app. ”
The company has also fared well amid the supply chain issues that are choking most US industries, using timber sourced from Michigan and its seaweed oil shipped to the country.
WNDR Alpine is currently promoting itself as a ski touring company, although Marshland and Fujas have pointed out that their products can be used at the resort. This summer, they plan to release a split board – a backcountry specific snowboard – and WNDR Alpine clothing is also in the works.
“Everything we do is iterative,” Marshland said. “Every seaweed wall formulation we’ve made since we introduced it is better than the last and every ski build from year to year is better than the last.”