Innovation That Matters

Sustainable product designer Elisa Gatti on creating a surfboard from recycled ocean plastic

Wise Words

The creator of “Ohana” surfboard highlights the similarities between the design process and surfing.

Elisa Gatti is an Italian design student who was recently shortlisted for the NABA design award with her surfboard made from wood and recycled plastic from the Italian seas. “Ohana” was born from Gatti’s desire to contribute to the protection of the marine environment and a passion for surfing combined with a love of wood. 

Over 40 per cent of the Italian coastline is polluted, with plastic waste being the main culprit. In fact, it has been forecasted that the presence of plastic in the oceans will outweigh fish by 2050, with 937 million tonnes of plastic to 895 million tonnes of fish.

We spoke to product designer Elisa Gatti to learn more about where the idea for Ohana came from, and how her relationship with the sea influences her designs.

1. Where did the idea of creating a surfboard from wood and recycled sea plastic come from?

Since I was a child, I grew up watching my father working with natural materials in his garage. The combination of experience and passion, together with the desire to safeguard the marine environment from the problem of pollution, led “Ohana” to be born.

2.What is your relationship like with the sea and how does this shape your designs? 

Riding a wave is a choice: the surfer chooses which wave to take, the one that’s right for them, they must decide whether it is better to try or wait. Life is the same, we decide what to do, whether to fight or fall. The perfect wave is the one that feels good, that puts the surfer in balance with the world and with themselves. 

The sea gives me energy and enthusiasm. It is not just a place to bathe, it is a state of the soul. It’s the same for me with design. When I design, I start with an idea, my starting point and I then transfer it to a piece of paper. As I follow the map, everything is realised following a precise path. Sometimes mistakes happen, we get lost or are faced with unexpected events. What remains after that is the satisfaction of having overcome them, and above all, having lived them. Each project is a wave, an adventure, you never know what to expect. 

4. What change do your designs want to foster? What are your key objectives at present?

My goal is to communicate a message and foster more people to change. In the case of Ohana, the aim is to convey the message to be a real “family”. I believe that only through union can great goals be achieved, especially in this field.

5. Who or what inspires you personally?

Inspiration for me comes from everything in my surroundings, especially people from different cultures. I acquire this inspiration through traveling and exploring.

6. What are the key challenges you face in your efforts to design a surfboard from recycled materials?

It took a lot of time to make Ohana. Every evening after work and university, my father and I gathered in our garage to complete the project. For months we solved problems, failures, tests on trials. There were both tears and smiles, which led to the satisfaction of seeing our design finally realised. The main challenges were understanding what was the right shape for the surfboard, knowing what materials to use and where to find them, and how to combine wood and recycled plastic. 

7. What do you think are the major challenges that designers are facing to create up-cycled products? And do you think that it is possible to truly embrace all points of circular design?

Making a product with entirely sustainable materials is not easy. There are numerous challenges to be faced in finding the right materials and their processing. However, this is probably also the most exciting part. I think it is possible to truly embrace all the points of circular design, only with a lot of attention, care and willpower.

8. What is one book (podcast, documentary, etc.) that has inspired you and that you recommend?

I recommend “Giorni Selvaggi – Una vita sulle onde” by William Finnegan.

The book, which translates to English as “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life” is a deeply rendered self-portrait of a lifelong surfer looking for transcendence. 

9. Do you have any other thoughts or wise words for aspiring entrepreneurs or “Plastic Preneurs”?

To answer this question I would like to explain the decision of calling this project “Ohana”, which stems from the intent to emphasize the sense of family. When I think of family, I think of understanding, tolerance and unconditional love. I think of the strength, the sacrifices, the communication and the dialogue that allowed me to carry out this project. Family is also the meaning of surfing, the sense of community and group that this sport provides. Unity is strength; only with the collaboration and commitment of all can you make the sea a cleaner environment. To quote Lilo and Stitch, “Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.”

For more visual content and information on the project, you can visit Elisa’s profile on Behance.