When it comes to the millions of derelict pleasure vessels marring the world’s backyards, marinas, coastlines and lakes, awareness of the problem is as widespread as the dead boats themselves. Sustainable handling of end-of-life vessels has been a hot topic at Metstrade and the International BoatBuilders Exhibition & Conference, has been discussed before the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization, and much, much more.

Potential solutions are popping up worldwide. In France, a boat-dismantling and recycling network is in full swing. In the Netherlands, composite materials are repurposed into river and canal retaining walls. In Italy, researchers turn fiberglass into kitchen counters or flooring. And in the United States, the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association’s 2019 pilot project to reprocess fiberglass hulls into an alternative resource for cement production — the first in the nation to examine large-scale fiberglass boat recycling domestically — has entered its second phase.

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All these efforts serve as the prologue to a paper the International Council on Marine Industry Associations’ Environment Committee released in April, declaring that end-of-life boat disposal is “not purely an owner problem.” The paper calls for “swift removal” of dead boats to safeguard demand for new boats, and notes increased consumer demand “for products that better perform environmentally.”

According to the paper, a lack of appropriate information available to the marine industry, boat owners and prospective owners is thwarting efforts to create a sustainable life cycle for vessels. “The solution to the problem will be found though collaboration of all stakeholders, both public and private, and through education, awareness and innovation,” says Darren Vaux, ICOMIA vice president and chair of the Environment Committee.

The ICOMIA paper also urges increased industry cooperation with larger composites industries to maximize the volume potential for remanufacturing, and to spread the financial burden of implementing solutions.

“Composite materials like fiberglass typically have a life of around 50 years in the marine environment, so we will be seeing increasing numbers of these vessels requiring disposal or recycling in the coming years,” Vaux says. “We are also tracking activities of the larger composite users like wind turbine blade makers, aircraft manufacturers and the automobile industry in development of manufacturing processes for recyclability and disposal/recycling pathways.”

RIMTA’s pilot project recycles fiberglass from old boats and uses it in cement.

RIMTA’s pilot project recycles fiberglass from old boats and uses it in cement.

Evolving Solutions

In Europe, the need to address the issue is tied in part to strict landfill laws and to the overall accumulation of composites waste. A mountain of end-of-life composite materials will reach almost 700,000 tons a year by 2025, according to the European Composites Industry Association. European regulations in effect from 2008 outlaw the landfilling of composite materials.

Boats are a small part of the total material, which includes wind turbine blades, consumer goods, swimming pools, buildings, infrastructure, tanks, pipes, railway cars, campers and more. A 2017 European Commission study found that 1 percent to 2 percent of more than 6 million boats less than 72 feet in length — or 80,000 boats annually — are reaching the end of life. Around 2,000 of those are dismantled for recycling, according to the ICOMIA paper.

France’s national recycling network, involving 20 coastal companies and 52 dismantling sites, is the work of APER, an association formed in 2009 by the French Nautical Industries Federation. Its goal, aided by tax dollars, is to deconstruct as many as 25,000 boats by the end of 2023. Industry investors in APER include Prestige Yachts (as well as other Groupe Beneteau brands), which add the tax into boat pricing, according to Erik Stromberg, Prestige director of product marketing.

Back in the United States, Evan Ridley, RIMTA director of environmental programs and manager of the recycled fiberglass pilot project, says potential solutions are still evolving worldwide. “The work we’ve done with cement kiln co-processing is well established in Europe’s composites world,” he says. “Ultimately, it will be a multisector endeavor, and it’s going to rely on economics and volume. That’s the biggest challenge in making recycling feasible long term.”

Another challenge is getting boatbuilders to embrace new materials. The ICOMA paper mentions the material Filava, which is made by the Belgian company Isomatex. Filava is a recyclable volcanic composite fiber. The Italian builder Amer uses it in nonstructural components of yacht construction, such as helm stations. Scraps and molds are recyclable with its use.

Filava — a recyclable volcanic rock filament

Filava — a recyclable volcanic rock filament

Until more recyclable materials are in the mix, work to recycle what exists will remain a focus. RIMTA’s fiberglass recycling project, since 2019, has contributed 40 tons of recovered materials to cement industry partners. Next, organizers hope to institute regionalized boat recycling efforts in the Northeast United States, a project that should help with what the National Marine Manufacturers Association estimates as more than 270,000 retired boats in the country by 2021.

“The great thing about the RIMTA project is how much data they are attempting to gather,” says Chris Edmonston, president of the BoatUS Foundation. “Lots of good data turns into best practices and cost modeling that people can embrace. Once this is done, the goal will be to take the program to other, larger states to see if RIMTA methods can be replicated. It’s exactly what’s needed.”

Other Players

A 2018 International Maritime Organization report also explores the issue of derelict, abandoned and damaged fiberglass boats. The research was done for island states with limited services, and focused on finding alternatives to at-sea disposal.

“Physical impacts of disposal for land and sea options include space take up, lack of biodegradation and, in the marine environment, impacts from hull break-up on sensitive systems such as seagrass and coral,” the report states.

The IMO is working on an updated draft report in conjunction with the United Nations Environment Programme, with publication expected in spring 2021, according to Andrew Birchenough, technical officer for the IMO Marine Environment Division. The final report would be available in 2022.

In North America, a recent, large-scale study of the issues was done in 2018 by NMMA Canada president Sara Anghel. That report shows, among other things, that outside of the RIMTA pilot program, there is no widespread recycling infrastructure in Canada or the United States.

Filava can be used for non-structural components of yacht construction; RIMTA’s fiberglass recycling project has contributed 40 tons of recovered materials to the 
cement industry.

Filava can be used for non-structural components of yacht construction; RIMTA’s fiberglass recycling project has contributed 40 tons of recovered materials to the cement industry.

Big Picture

Nicole Vasilaros, vice chair of the ICOMIA Environment Committee and NMMA senior vice president of government and legal affairs, says the world’s current focus on climate change is an opportunity for the marine industry to take a position on end-of-life boats. She has been using the recent ICOMIA paper in discussions with lawmakers on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.

“From an industry standpoint, we want to be part of the solution,” she says. “Putting together what we see globally and airing the opportunities and challenges is an important way to get all marine industry groups working together.”

Vasilaros agrees with Edmonston that the RIMTA pilot project is an excellent example of working on a solution. “The RIMTA project is innovative, and Congress is supporting it,” she says. “You can’t just say you have to recycle, and there’s no solution. That’s what’s exciting about what RIMTA is trying to do. It’s turning composites into energy, and showing how to use them for future composite production. I think it’s a good model.”

The conversation about end-of-life boats is expected to continue at Metstrade in November. Peter Franklin, the show’s environmental sustainability coordinator, says he’s reaching out to potential speakers from Italy, Britain, France, the United States, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and more: “We want to be able to bring evidence of tangible and practical developments that have been achieved since the last show.” 

This article was originally published in the July 2020 issue.

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