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A sustainable new Irish wetsuit made from oyster shells and sugar cane

Game Changers: The vast majority of wetsuits are made from neoprene, a synthetic rubber created from petroleum

Stephen Byrne went looking for a wetsuit when he first started thinking about learning to surf a few years ago. “I found there was no Irish brand of wetsuit, which was startling,” he says, given the strong surfing culture in Ireland. At the time he was working in tech sales and wondered if there might be a niche for an Irish wetsuit business. If he was to start one, he wanted to make it as environmentally friendly as possible. “Then I quickly realised wetsuits are made from petrol.”

Neoprene is chloroprene, a synthetic form of rubber made by chemically treating petroleum and other chemicals, or heat-treating limestone to create a foam which is formed into sheets of material.

Next month, Byrne will launch his new brand of Irish wetsuit called Snawve (a phonetic spelling of “snámh”) with a commitment to “No Neoprene Always”. Byrne believes synthetic rubber has had its day. Brands such as Finisterre and Patagonia have stopped using neoprene in their wetsuits. Meanwhile, a documentary called The Big Sea will provide the tipping moment for a move away from the material, he believes. The film looks at the industry’s effect on the human health of people working and living near neoprene factories.

“Most surfers are even shocked that wetsuits are made with petrol. Surfers and water sports enthusiasts tend to care about the environment,” Byrne says. “Essentially, the wool is being pulled over our eyes.”


A second wave of wetsuit material is now being manufactured. Byrne’s wetsuits will be made using a foam produced from oyster shells, sugar cane, rapeseed oil and natural rubber. The base material is made in Taiwan, and the suits are manufactured in a factory in Bulgaria. They are lined with polyester made from recycled plastic bottles that are turned into yarn and spun into fabric.

Snawve’s factory is also recycling neoprene wetsuits to save them from landfill by giving them a second life as yoga mats and bags, Byrne explains. “It is completely off the energy grid, with solar-panel energy.”

He has been prototyping his wetsuit design with surfers around the country, and has fed back their ideas to the factory. He is hoping to launch next month in time for winter surfers and the Christmas market. The wetsuits will retail for around €350 – more expensive than neoprene, but cheaper than the current alternatives from sustainable brands. In the long term, he would love to see the raw material and wetsuits being manufactured in Ireland, especially as they could use the byproducts of the oyster industry. But creating an Irish wetsuit, part of which comes from the waves, will involve an even deeper dive.

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a founder of Pocket Forests