Surfwear company markets organic wetsuits made of rubber from Arizona shrub

March 25, 2013

Environmentally minded surfers who catch cold ocean waves are excited about a new wetsuit made from a plant that thrives in Arizona.  

botanical garden Guayule is grown at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. (Photo by Steve Shadley - KJZZ)

The shrub produces an organic rubber alternative to wetsuits made of chemical-based neoprene. A major sportswear company is marketing the suit and investors hope it will boost Arizona's agriculture industry.

The heat resistant shrub is found in Mexico and across the American southwest. And, now its commercially harvested right here in Arizona. The plant has a tricky name,   "G-U-A-Y-U-L-E, Guayule..."  

Andrew Salywon is an assistant curator at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix and a Guayule expert. He shows off one of the shrubs.

"It has grayish, green leaves.  The leaves are covered in small whitish hairs...and we can see resin exuding from some of the wounds on the plant," he said.

Guayule Plant at Desert Botanical Garden ”Desert Botanical Garden Assistant Herbarium Curator Andrew Salywon with Guayule Plant” (Photo by Steve Shadley - KJZZ)

The resin comes from breaks in the stems and bark on this unattractive shrub. But investors are seeing green and they like to joke that the Guayule bush is dripping money.  During World War Two, Guayule was used to make rubber however production stopped after the war. Now it's making a comeback.

The Yulex Corporation turns the Guayule resin into a durable "biorubber."  Yulex President and CEO Jeff Martin poured Guayule resin from a bottle at his company's labs in Phoenix.

"This is actually the material right here...and this is a latex emulsion. I'm just dipping my finger in here and you can see this latex emulsion with a little bit of heat and friction…instantly turns into the elastic material we know as rubber," he said.

Guayule Wetsuit Wetsuit made from Guayule plant rubber (Photo by Yulex Corporation)

Yulex has teamed up with Patagonia Outdoor Clothing to start making the wetsuit that is 60 percent Guayule based, and someday will be 100 percent.

Jason McCaffrey is business director of Patagonia's surf wear in Ventura, Calif.  He said it's not hard to convince surfers that the Guayule wetsuit is awesome.

"They would put it on and use it for surfing and they would have no idea that there was a difference performance wise. It's almost impossible to tell with the exception of Guayule suits smell way better than the traditional neoprene suits," he said.

 McCaffrey said a Guayule wetsuit smells like a mix between pine needles and eucalyptus leaves not that nasty chemical smell that neoprene wetsuits have. But it costs more, up to $1,200 for a custom Guayule suit. 

He said Guayule has the ability to stretch more than a traditional rubber wetsuit and he says it keeps a surfer warm in cold water. 

"Everyone that we have talked to has been stoked. They're fired up and they’re just waiting to get their hands on it," McCaffrey said.

And, that could mean profits for Arizona farmers who grow Guayule. Near the town of Maricopa south of Phoenix, farmer Todd Thelander stands at the edge of his 33 acres of Guayule.  He’s frustrated because his crop of Guayule isn’t meeting the demands of the wetsuit manufacturer.

"It's a pain in the butt because we are not getting the latex we want out of it.  I think if we could change it or find a different variety...I think it would be a fantastic thing for Arizona and for all of the surfers around," he said.

Guayule Wetsuit ”Guayule farm near Maricopa, Arizona ” (Photo by Steve Shadley - KJZZ)

Thelander is still confident enough with Guayule that he’s agreed to plant another 300 acres of the shrub for the Yulex Corporation.  Industry reports say 11 million tons of natural rubber are manufactured each year and it sells for an average price of $3,500 per ton.

Martin said he believes the market for Guayule is about to take off, and he's ready to compete with rubber producers in other parts of the world.  

"Arizona is now in position to become the epicenter or the leading developer of natural rubber in the United States, essentially what’s happening here is the emergence  of a natural rubber industry," Martin said.

Martin said his company is also making Guayule gloves, foam mattresses and even tires. But, he said Yulex will continue to produce wetsuit material for Patagonia. The wetsuits already are selling in Japan and later this spring, they'll be available in the United States.

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