Skiing on algae: How a Utah company wants to eliminate plastic in ski construction

Zach Sinclair finishes polishing a ski at WNDR Alpine, a local company that uses algae-based bioplastics to replace
plastics used in ski construction, at the company’s facility in Salt Lake City, Friday.

Zach Sinclair finishes polishing a ski at WNDR Alpine, a local company that uses algae-based bioplastics to replace plastics used in ski construction, at the company’s facility in Salt Lake City, Friday. (Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Petroleum likely permeates the room you're sitting in. Its products are in the kitchenware you used to cook and eat breakfast, the soap you cleaned up with and the toothpaste and toothbrush you used when you were done eating. It's probably in your clothes. It's definitely in the computer you're using to read this.

And if you're a skier, petroleum products are an integral part of your ski's construction. Unless you own a pair of WNDR Alpine skis, that is.

Pronounced "wonder," the Utah-based company has been making waves in the ski industry since it was launched in 2019 as an arm of the California startup Checkerspot, largely due to its use of algae-based bioplastics as a substitute for petroleum products in ski production.

You read that right — algae. When thinking of a durable alternative to plastic in the aforementioned household items, chances are algae didn't come to mind. But going on its third year in the ski industry, WNDR Alpine's AlgalTech is proving to be a reliable, and profitable, substitute for petroleum-based plastics.

The company now has three skis in its product line, each priced at $699, with older models offered at a discount.

If sustainability and performance wasn't enough to position WNDR Alpine as a future big name in skiing, two of the brains behind the project might be — Matt Sterbenz, general manager of winter sports for Checkerspot, and Pep Fujas, the company's vice president of marketing and product development.

A former professional skier, Sterbenz launched 4FRNT Skis in 2002, which grew to become a leading innovator in park, big mountain and backcountry skiing. Fujas is also an accomplished professional skier, with almost two decades as an athlete for industry giant K2 Skis, which even launched a ski bearing his name, the "Kung Fujas."

Pep Fujas, professional skier and vice president of
marketing and product development of WNDR Alpine, a local company
that uses algae-based bioplastics to replace plastics used in ski
construction, poses for a portrait at the company’s facility in
Salt Lake City on Friday.
Pep Fujas, professional skier and vice president of marketing and product development of WNDR Alpine, a local company that uses algae-based bioplastics to replace plastics used in ski construction, poses for a portrait at the company’s facility in Salt Lake City on Friday. (Photo: Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News)

Both WNDR Alpine and its parent company have lofty aspirations. Checkerspot has its sights set on American manufacturing as a whole, hoping the success of its algae-based materials can spur a movement away from petroleum products.

The goals are more targeted for fast-growing WNDR Alpine, which in the past year has nearly doubled its workforce, tripled the size of its Salt Lake City factory and hopes to open a new flagship store on the city's west side in the coming months. The company plans to use its algal products to launch an apparel line, and wants to partner with other ski and outdoor businesses to help transition them away from petroleum.

Xan Marshland, manager of brand development, calls the company's mission "one of democratization of materials."

Though Checkerspot holds several patents, much of the technology isn't new, and Marshland said the company is more focused on partnering with potential competitors, rather than leveraging its sustainability as a marketing ploy.

"We want this to be as much of a systemic impact as possible, rather than just like us keeping all the bio-based materials to ourselves, because we'd have to be kidding ourselves to think one backcountry ski line is going to save the world," he said. "But something that could actually make a significant impact is the widespread adoption of algal oils, algal ingredients and algal materials across multiple industries ... with these skis, we're going to inch as close as we can to that, every year."

Xan Marshland, manager of brand development, back,
watches Pep Fujas, professional skier and vice president of
marketing and product development, during tour of WNDR Alpine, a
local ski company that uses algae-based bioplastics to replace
plastics used in ski construction, in Salt Lake City on Friday.
Xan Marshland, manager of brand development, back, watches Pep Fujas, professional skier and vice president of marketing and product development, during tour of WNDR Alpine, a local ski company that uses algae-based bioplastics to replace plastics used in ski construction, in Salt Lake City on Friday. (Photo: Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News)

In an industry brimming with company pledges to reduce emissions, carbon offsets, flashy electric vehicles and recycling programs — moves that skeptics often label as greenwashing — WNDR Alpine has emerged as the only ski hard goods fabricator deemed a Certified B Corporation. The esteemed label is given to companies with "the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose," according to B Corps' website.

"Ski making is an incredibly wasteful process, I cannot stress that enough," Marshland shouted over the hum of machinery at WNDR Alpines's 22,000-square-foot factory.

Much of that waste stems from the use of thermoplastic ABS — acrylonitrile butadiene styrene. Plastic, in layman's terms. Most skis are constructed using a mix of ABS plastic, fiberglass and wood for the core, a polyethylene material for the base, metal edges and an ABS plastic sidewall.

And while WNDR Alpine's finished product may look like that of any other ski company's, it successfully replaced ABS plastic in most stages of production.

So far, the feedback has been good. The skis can withstand undue stress from the likes of Fujas and other professional athletes, gear reviews are generally positive, and Marshland said he can count the number of returns the company has fielded on one hand.

"Wood distributes vibration a lot, but the algal foam helps to 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 boasted dozens of skis in its product line, for a startup that at the time only offered one model. "But I got on the skis, and they skied great," Fujas said, and it wasn't long before he saw Sterbenz's pitch as more than a gimmick.

"Skis have to withstand a lot of forces," Fujas said. "Between environmental, heat, cold and then the forces that are applied just through the skiing action itself — you have to put a lot of weight on the ski, it has to bend, it has to perform in a lot of different ways. So that helps to really prove what these materials are capable of, so you can showcase that to other companies that are interested."

CJ Rand, of WNDR Alpine, mixes and weighs the chemical
precursor to the company’s algae oil-derived ski sidewalls at the
company’s facility in Salt Lake City on Friday.
CJ Rand, of WNDR Alpine, mixes and weighs the chemical precursor to the company’s algae oil-derived ski sidewalls at the company’s facility in Salt Lake City on Friday. (Photo: Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News)

The process starts in Berkeley, California, where oil is extracted from microalgae grown in fermentation tanks. That oil is a precursor to a number of plastic substitutes, including the polyurethane material used in WNDR Alpine's 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 ski core.

In addition to the foam, WNDR Alpine makes a liquid polyurethane that is poured into a channel carved around the perimeter of the core to create the sidewall, essentially the side of the ski above the edge.

ABS plastic also makes up the sidewall for most skis, shipped to companies in a solid, rectangular shape, attached to the core with resins and epoxies, then trimmed down to create the tapered ski profile. It's one of the many wasteful steps in ski production highlighted by Marshland.

"You end up milling it down and wasting a lot of the material that you just bought, putting it directly in the landfill before it even became a ski," Marshland said, noting that the algae-based oil eliminates any excess material used in sidewall construction.

A pile of wood cores are pictured at WNDR Alpine, a
local ski company that uses algae-based bioplastics to replace
plastics used in ski construction, in Salt Lake City on Friday.
A pile of wood cores are pictured at WNDR Alpine, a local ski company that uses algae-based bioplastics to replace plastics used in ski construction, in Salt Lake City on Friday. (Photo: Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News)

And while there are still plenty of scraps littering WNDR Alpine's shop floors, instead of throwing them in the trash, leftover material is recycled to make ski stands. Eventually, Fujas wants to see the scraps used to create anything from countertops to bike racks.

"I'd guess in 99% of ski manufacturing, this stuff just goes directly into the landfill. So this is all trash, ordinarily," Fujas said, pointing to a trash can filled with ski cutoffs. "What we're doing is grinding it all up and using it in a new application."

The company has also fared well amid the supply chain issues squeezing most American industries, using wood sourced from Michigan, and its algal oil shipped domestically.

WNDR Alpine currently markets itself as a backcountry ski company, though both Marshland and Fujas stressed their products can be used within the resort. This summer, they plan on releasing a split board — a backcountry specific snowboard — and WNDR Alpine apparel is also in the works.

"Everything we do is iterative," Marshland said. "Every formulation of algal wall that we've made since we introduced it is better than the last and every ski construction year to year is better than the last."

Dane Weister, product specialist at WNDR Alpine, a
local company that uses algae-based bioplastics to replace plastics
used in ski construction, glues the layers of a ski together at the
company’s facility in Salt Lake City on Friday.
Dane Weister, product specialist at WNDR Alpine, a local company that uses algae-based bioplastics to replace plastics used in ski construction, glues the layers of a ski together at the company’s facility in Salt Lake City on Friday. (Photo: Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News)

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Kyle Dunphey

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