When fiberglass hull production boomed in the 1970s, boat owners were graced with virtually indestructible vessels. Now that many of the early fiberglass boats are 30 or 40 years old and nearing end-of-life status, their owners face a challenge: Landfills are running out of space, and sustainable alternatives for disposal can be expensive.
Naval architect Eric Sponberg, originally from St. Augustine, Fla., has advocated for a recycling system for more than 25 years. Now retired and sailing around the world, he is more in tune with the environmental necessity of a recycling initiative.
“I have been underway for two and a half years now, and I’ve come about 14,000 miles,” Sponberg says. “In that time, I have seen dead boats dirtying up the environment. They are all over the place. It goes along with recovering plastics out of the ocean. Boats are plastic, and they have to join the effort.”
Sponberg says North America in particular is behind in developing the infrastructure to recycle derelict hulls. “The boating industry in the U.S. does not seem to realize the dire circumstances that dead boats have in the environment,” he says. “State and local governments are the ones in the primary position to address the problem, and they then need to enlist the help of the composites industry.”
France is demonstrating the effectiveness of the model that Sponberg recommends; its marine industry is driving a boat-recycling initiative, and it plans to enlist the help of other industries that use composites, including aeronautics and automotive, which have a much larger mass of recyclable materials than the boat industry. According to APER, a French organization responsible for the waste treatment of vessels, France was the first European country to adopt an official national recycling and dismantling network for boats.
APER, which was created by the Federation of Nautical Industries, has dismantled about 2,500 boats since 2009. This year, APER will increase the number of boats being recycled. The organization has 18 facilities across France and expects to have as many as 30 by the end of the year, with 10 more added in 2020.
An eco-contribution fee from FIN’s member boatbuilders and boat importers for each new boat on sale in the country, supplemented by a portion of taxes paid to the government by boat owners, funds the program. The only cost to the boat owner is transport to the facility.
Sixty-five boatbuilding companies are in the APER program. The members represent more than 85 percent of boat sales in France and include Groupe Beneteau, which builds 10,000 boats annually from 16 to 105 feet. As the program expands, APER hopes to dismantle 20,000 to 25,000 boats by 2023.
The French centers have developed an economically feasible model for dismantling boats and and disposing of salable parts, but they do not yet have a solution for the fiberglass. At the moment, it’s incinerated or broken into small parts and landfilled, but APER is working to develop a better method for recycling the fiberglass into another usable product.
“Boating represents less than 5 percent of all composites in France,” says Guillaume Arnauld des Lions, executive director of APER. “We need to work with other industries that use composites, such as automotive and aeronautics. Ultimately, we know if buyers in other industries want to use our recycled products, we need to standardize the product to a certain level of quality and provide much higher volumes.”
Other European countries have developed their own initiatives to repurpose fiberglass from dismantled boats. “The European Composites Solution based out of Germany says that the only real way to get rid of fiberglass is to put it into the cement kiln process and turn it into dust, which is a closed-loop process,” says Peter Franklin, an Amsterdam-based expert on boat recycling. “So there’s a discussion that goes on in Europe about how to turn boats back into another product, which is a truly circular process, but with fiberglass that just doesn’t seem possible.”
Most fiberglass hulls are put through the cement kiln incineration process in the Netherlands, where landfill bans have forced alternatives for discarding dead boats. There are 200 incineration plants in the Netherlands, and they try to capture emissions, but many countries in Europe still pursue alternate repurposing options.
According to Franklin, Italy has a nearly $1.7 million scholarship fund from the Tuscany region and is working with universities to develop a recycling program that turns fiberglass into a reusable product. The current pilot scheme, which they hope to finish in August, combines chopped-up fiberglass with waste from polystyrene and puts it through a low-temperature volume process where it is converted into a laminate that can be used for kitchen countertops. The Netherlands has a similar process that combines shredded fiberglass with an epoxy resin to create a strong material that can be used to line docks and that, hopefully, the construction industry can use.
The European Union has yet to become officially involved in the recycling initiative, but there are 6 million boats in Europe, and approximately 60 percent are fiberglass, with many of those nearing end-of-life status, according to estimates from the International Congress of Marine Industry Associations. ICOMIA has put boat recycling on its agenda of action items.
“At Metstrade in November, we want to bring together various people that have different solutions, not only for dealing with waste but for dealing with logistics and funding, and try to develop a business model that can be adopted across the European countries,” Franklin says. “We’re in discussion with the European Union and the EU Commission, and they’re very keen to do something, but they don’t have enough data or stakeholders to take it further.”
The Metstrade panel will include Enrico Benco, who developed a recyclable composite in Italy, and a government consultant from Norway, where government funding pays for boat disposal and pays the boat owner a small amount to cover transport fees.
The Japan Marine Industry Association developed its own recycling program in 2005, as the country was faced with a large number of illegally dumped fiberglass boats. The program uses existing vehicle and boat dismantlers, and cement plants as recycling facilities. It has 414 boat dealers and marinas, 36 dismantlers, nine processing companies, and five cement plants in its network. The program has recycled more than 8,000 vessels since 2005 and reportedly sends only 12 or 13 percent of the material to landfills. The cost to transport and recycle the vessels falls on the boat owner, and many opt for cheaper dismantling with a higher rate of landfill dumping, but the government support is promising in a country with limited space for landfill and a marine-reliant economy.
The United States is still in the first stages of developing a recycling program for end-of-life vessels and obtaining industry and government support, despite the estimated millions of boats qualified for recycling, based on statistics from the National Marine Manufacturers Association. The Rhode Island Marine Trades Association is leading the way with a pilot project that repurposes end-of-life fiberglass hulls into a resource for cement manufacturers.
“Many boat recycling efforts have been on a local basis,” says Chris Edmonston, president of the BoatUS Foundation, which is providing funding for the RIMTA pilot project. “We’re hoping RIMTA will develop a model that can be transferred to other areas so we can develop a more national program.”
RIMTA is employing the cement kiln coprocessing method that has been used in Europe for the past 10 years and that can be a step toward developing more advanced recycling methods. The current process involves stripping vessels of non-ferrous metals, engines, electronics, tanks and interior fabrics, then redirecting those materials to existing markets. The fiberglass hull and its associated parts are isolated and reduced in size by industrial shredding equipment, and the shredded material can be used as a resource in cement products.
“The biggest question we’ve been able to check off is that it’s viable,” says Evan Ridley, the project manager at RIMTA. “We were able to verify that our partners in Rhode Island have the capability to collect boats and separate their materials, and have the resources necessary to meet the standards set by a cement industry partner. And we were able to verify that the cement industry can use this as a valuable resource in their manufacturing process.”
RIMTA also has recognized the necessity of partnering with other composite industries to amass the materials necessary to expand the project. The pilot project aims to be a foot in the door for the recycling of other composite materials that do not have sustainable disposal options.
The greatest hope is for sustained industry support to continue building momentum. “Right now we’re looking for people who are willing not only to give us financial and resource support, but are interested in seeing how some of the functions of the recycling network and the model that we’ve created could be implemented into their day-to-day business practices and operations,” Ridley says.
Manufacturers, boatyards and marinas are targets for this support, which will be instrumental in keeping the initiative going through stage two of the pilot project. RIMTA plans to present its progress at Metstrade. The consensus among experts is that developing a system requires cooperation between the boating industry, the composites industry and the government to ensure economic feasibility.
“We want the industry to come to a solution collectively,” Ridley says. “It only takes one hurricane to show just how many boats are out there and what it means to have a system in place to handle the life cycle of that capacity responsibly and sustainably.”
Sponberg believes the environmental aspect, and sheer ugliness of derelicts, will drive boat recycling more than the economics. “I think it’s going to be a price that we have to pay to preserve our environment,” he says.
This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue.