Surf’s Up, and It’s Green

Alumni6 MIN READ

Mike Ballin ’21 is using recycled plastic to 3D print surfboards at Blueprint Surf Co. 

Mike Ballin '21, cofounder of Blueprint Surf Co., surfs a spring swell at Higgins Beach in Scarborough, Maine.
By Abigail CurtisPhotography by Jasper Lowe
April 16, 2024

If the waves are up on the coast of Maine, chances are Mike Ballin ’21 knows about them. 

And it’s also a good bet that he’s riding them in style on one of the special 3D-printed surfboards his new company, Portland-based Blueprint Surf Co., creates from recycled plastic. The boards provide a greener alternative to usual surfboard materials and help Ballin combine his avocation with his vocation. 

“I learned so much at Colby about the environmental problems that we face and the science behind it all,” the environmental studies major said. “It’s been my dream to make surfboards and also make something that’s environmentally much better than what’s out there.” 

Inspired to make a change

Ballin grew up in the coastal community of Gloucester, Mass., where he learned to surf. At Colby, both he and his older brother Casey Ballin ’16 participated in the Colby Surf Club, which aims to get students out on the water. 

Although central Maine does not usually land on the list of top surfing destinations, it worked out well for Mike Ballin, who held a leadership role in the surf club. His favorite surfing spot was at Popham Beach in Phippsburg, more than an hour away from campus. He and his friends would get up at 3:30 or 4 a.m., head to the beach, and get back in time to make a 9 a.m. class. Sometimes, if the waves were good, they’d return after class was done. 

After graduation, he went to work for a southern Maine firm that did environmental compliance consulting around the state. Ballin liked the company and appreciated the work-life balance that a 40-hour-a-week job provided, but he didn’t feel like he was making the right kind of impact. That crystallized for him one day when he drove five hours just to do a 20-minute site visit. 

Mike Ballin make his way to the water with one his 3D-printed Blueprint surf boards.

“You leave Colby so inspired to make a change, and this was not where I wanted to put my energy,” he said. “That was a really good realization.” 

He figured there were other ways to do good for the environment, and he had one in mind in particular: Blueprint. That was the company that he and Luke Diehl, a friend and fellow surfer, had founded on a part-time basis after graduation based on the idea that it was possible to 3D print a durable, beautiful, fun, and environmentally friendly surfboard. Ballin had spent weekends and evenings working on Blueprint, and a little over a year ago he decided to go all in on a full-time basis. 

“We felt like we could actually make a business out of this,” he said. 

Building it better

Modern surfboards are generally made with a polyurethane foam core, fiberglass, and polyurethane resin. They’re fast and maneuverable, but the carbon footprint of those materials adds up. As well, working with polyurethane resin—a petroleum-derived product—can be detrimental to the health of surfboard builders. 

The surfboard industry, too, leaves a lot to be desired, Ballin said. 

Mike Ballin cofounded Blueprint Surf Co. with a friend on a part-time basis after graduating in 2021 based on the idea that it was possible to 3D print a durable, beautiful, fun, and environmentally friendly surfboard. A little over a year ago, he decided to go all in on a full-time basis.

“There’s all these cases of companies saying they have environmental goals and [they are] just greenwashing,” he said, referring to the practice of making false or misleading statements about environmental benefits. “It’s so bad.” 

Ballin and Diehl, an engineer by training who manages the business side of the company, wanted to do something different and better. They use a biologically derived epoxy resin rather than polyurethane resin, and instead of foam, the core of Blueprint boards is made of recycled medical-waste plastic derived from surgical trays. The durable plastic is very popular for use in 3D applications. 

“It’s a single-use plastic that normally would be thrown out,” Ballin said. 

It hasn’t been a smooth process to transform the recycled plastic into a good surfboard, which requires a balance of functionality, performance, and aesthetics. At first, the 3D-printed surfboards were awkward, heavy, and quickly became waterlogged. 

“But now they are getting to be very fun,” he said.  

Sparking trust

Ballin and Diehl fine-tuned their design and worked closely with the engineering team at the Roux Institute at Northeastern University in Portland to 3D print them. Ballin brings the boards to a garage-turned-shop in South Portland, where he finishes them by hand with fiberglass and epoxy. Blueprint surfboards are made to order and notable for their translucent appearance, thanks to the recycled plastic at their core. 

The board currently available for sale on their website, a model called the Sea Mink, starts at $700. 

Blueprint Surf Co. uses a biologically derived epoxy resin and the core is made of recycled medical-waste plastic derived from surgical trays, a single-use plastic that normally would be thrown out.

The duo has also worked with a team of interns from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire to devise a marketing plan for Blueprint. The students surveyed surfers and did local research, learning about challenges and opportunities for the company. 

“One of the main things we’re finding out is that people are skeptical [about 3D-printed surfboards],” Ballin said. “I’d like to equate it to the first hybrid car. It’s very different from what people are used to seeing, and they don’t know how to react to it.” 

To counter that skepticism, he and Diehl are building up an inventory of boards for “demo days”  that they’ll let surfers use for an hour to see what they think. 

“We’re hoping that will spark a little bit more trust,” Ballin said. 

Last fall, he went on a trip to Nova Scotia with friends. They surfed all day with the 3D-printed boards, and he realized that his dream of making something that is both fun and greener than the standard surfboard had finally become a reality. 

“This is so cool,” Ballin remembered thinking. “I’m actively choosing to use a board that’s not detrimental to the environment.”