Healthy Waters, Healthy Industry

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Michael Verdon

Michael Verdon

Welcome to our climate issue. Climate is one of those words that covers a lot of territory, so we decided to look at how it relates to boating from different angles, including changing weather, hurricane forecasting, algal blooms and fish migration patterns, not to mention environmental concerns such as plastics in the ocean, boat recycling and efforts the industry is making toward sustainability. The list may be too much of a hodgepodge to tackle in a single magazine, but it shows how climate change and environmental issues are impacting our business.

The issues are big and complex, while our industry is small, often financially challenged and focused mostly on boat sales and usage — aka Discover Boating. So much so that we seem to ignore the fact that our economic health is dependent on the health of our waters. We saw that last year in Florida, when a pervasive red tide halted boating and fishing along parts of the Gulf Coast for months. This year, record rainfall impacted boat sales. About a year ago, I heard sailors from the Volvo Ocean Race say they were seeing plastic in remote areas of the ocean that had been pristine two years earlier.

The good news is that companies are starting to respond in meaningful ways. Yamaha has partnered with a company that builds machines to collect plastic and other refuse from rivers and tributaries so the garbage won’t end up in the ocean. If the Yamaha Rightwaters project is successful, we could see these machines cleaning up waterways around the country.

In France, APER — an organizational offshoot of the Federation of Nautical Industries, the country’s boatbuilder association — has set up a national network to recycle old boats. They expect to dismantle 25,000 boats by 2023. The Rhode Island Marine Trades Association, backed by BoatUS, has launched its own recycling program, which might become a feasible model for the rest of the United States. Volvo Penta, British yacht builder Sunseeker and Costa sunglasses have started their own campaigns to address ocean plastics. Small efforts in the face of big challenges, but a start.

Sustainability is another feel-good buzzword that has worked its way into corporate speak, but I’m glad to report that our industry’s big companies have serious initiatives underway.

Lippert Components grinds more than 900 tons of scrap plastic each year for reuse in production. Garmin, which ships 17 million products annually, uses 80 percent recycled materials in its cardboard packaging and 25 percent recycled content in its plastic clamshell packaging. BRP Evinrude has created a closed-loop water filtration system at its outboard testing facility that has saved more than 22 million gallons of water since it deployed. Energy gained from outboard testing is reused to heat the building.

Mercury also uses reclaimed energy to heat its buildings and run production. From my view, Mercury has the industry’s most serious and advanced sustainability program, a 10-year initiative that has helped the environment, production and employees.

I won’t go into all the programs, but the results are impressive. In 2005, Mercury used 295 million gallons of water across its global operations. Last year, that was down 34 percent to 193 million gallons. The company is also reporting hazardous waste output has fallen from 297 tons in 2005 to 138 tons last year.

Mercury’s global energy consumption is down 45 percent from 2005. The 5 percent energy decrease in the last year alone would be enough to power 1,500 homes for one year. All this is happening in a decade when production has increased by about 15 percent year over year.

I visited the Fond du Lac, Wis., headquarters recently, and Mercury seems like an entirely new place, even compared to when I was there in 2014. Facilities that just five years ago were like a 1950s assembly line have been modernized with new robotics, lifting devices for workers, more logical production flows and ergonomic improvements that not only make manufacturing more efficient, but easier on the workers.

The company has also focused on LED lighting, solar panels, heat recovery, recycling and natural lighting to increase its environmental impact. Its EMEA headquarters in Belgium even leases a fleet of hybrid vehicles.

Lest I sound like a Mercury ad, the foundry where it manufactures stainless steel propellers still has a medieval feel, with men in protective aprons retrieving red-hot molds with tongs from roaring furnaces, then pouring molten metal into the molds. Even that will change, with the new prop facility being built across the street.

The greatest environmental advances over the last two decades have been by the engine manufacturers, which have reduced emissions dramatically. Evinrude’s new 2-strokes produce 90 percent fewer exhaust emissions compared to old-technology 2-strokes. And Mercury, Yamaha, Honda and Suzuki have paved the way in 4-stroke emissions reductions. Outboard emissions, according to Mercury, are down 76 percent from 66.42 grams per kilowatt hour in 2005 to 16.24 now. That means substantially better air quality and fewer greenhouse gases emitted.

The good news is that while we’re just getting started in some areas, we’re very advanced in others. 

This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue.

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