Written by Natasha Posnett

We are great at building boats, but when it comes to the end of their life and disposal, we have a lot to learn! End of life boats represent a growing environmental issue and it is becoming an increasingly topical area of discussion in the boating world. Up until recently, most boats were not designed with sustainability in mind and landfill was the default disposal method. However, mindsets are beginning to change and the harmful environmental consequences of current approaches understood. In order for a real difference to be seen in the near future, alternative solutions need to be made cost effective and regulations tightened. A positive change within the industry will ultimately begin with industry leaders and innovators.

THE BOAT BOOM ERA CATCHING UP WITH US

The invention of fibreglass boats changed the recreational boating industry. They enabled the mass production of strong and durable yachts at an affordable price. A boom in their sales was first seen throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s and they have been the most popular type of boat ever since. With the average lifespan of a fibreglass boat being about 30-50 years, many of them are now reaching the end of their life, creating a global pollution issue and the need for change. In Europe alone there are 6 million registered boats, 95% of which are made from fibreglass and roughly 2% of them reaching the end of their life each year. That means that in Europe, approximately 120,000 fibreglass boats need to be disposed of yearly. Around 2000 are recycled, but the rest are either abandoned or sent to landfill.

LANDFILLS & LEACHING

There are countries leading the way for change which have already banned the disposal of fibreglass hulls in landfill, but for the majority of the world, this is the still the most common outcome for boats that reach the end their life. The disposal of fibreglass boats into landfill presents an array of environmentally damaging issues and is an unsustainable option for the future.

Scrapped boats contain toxic substances such as paints, resins, antifouling, asbestos and mercury based products. Over time they leach into the soil and groundwater creating an environmental hazard. Polluted groundwater runs into waterways and can have negative impacts on rivers, oceans and the species that live in them. Fibreglass hulls that end up in landfill will remain there for hundreds of years leaving the problem for future generations to deal with.

THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY

Some boats never make it as far as landfill. It can be an expensive option for owners and many people do not have the finances to do it. This has resulted in an increase in abandoned boats and boat graveyards which is creating another global pollution issue. End of life fibreglass boats are being disposed of at sea, left up creeks and neglected at boatyards without any means of tracing the owner.

Fibreglass boats that are left to naturally decay in the sea and estuaries release toxins and microplastics into the environment (Ciocan, 2020). Microplastic have been widely discussed over recent years, but rarely in connection with yachts. We understand the harm that they can cause; from bioaccumulating up the food chain to damaging the oceans valuable ecosystem such as coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass.

However, it is not only plastics which cause damage. As with landfills, other dangerous toxins from the boats end up entering the environment and having a direct effect on the habitats and its species. Peeling paints release harmful chemicals into the water. High levels of lead, zinc and copper have been found in small marine organisms and sediment in areas with abandoned boats (Reese et al., 2014).

THE FUTURE

Long term, neither landfill or abandonment are sustainable methods of disposal for fibreglass boats. Moving forwards, alternative methods of disposal need to be identified and worked on. On the other hand, a move towards using different materials could be a solution. Either way, an essential starting point is getting industry leaders and innovators to understand and address the issue.

Fibreglass Recycling

Fibreglass boats can be disposed of in a more sustainable way and some countries are already leading the way and doing it well. Currently, the most feasible technology for recycling fiberglass involves shredding the material into small pieces and combining it with other materials or resins to create a new composite for use in a new product.

France is one country that seems to have found a good solution. According to new rules introduced in 2019, owners are required to pay an ‘eco tax’ when they register their boats- which is obligatory- and the funds generated are used to recycle old ones. Sweden has also come up with a solution. Boat owners there have to transport the end of life boat to an approved recycling centre and the rest will be taken care of for them.

Alternative Materials

Fibreglass boats had their heyday, but perhaps it is time to start using other materials more widely. There is no doubt that fibreglass will remain a popular choice for many years to come, but the industry is already seeing a shift towards using new, more sustainable materials. Unlike fibreglass, materials such as aluminium and steel have an established recycling economy. Boats made from these materials would retain a lot of their value which would eliminate the need to send them to landfill or abandon them, reducing pollution and saving energy and money. Old boats could be turned into new products and the cycle would continue.

Similarly, the use of biodegradable composites and bio-based resins, from renewable sources, is receiving attention. Natural fibres such as hemp, bamboo and flax are being used with positive outcomes. They present a strong and realistic alternative to common fibreglass.

Circular Economy

Circular economy Currently, the life of fibreglass boats still remains linear- the materials are used, they age and then they are left with little value at the end of their life. It is a carbon intensive process with little regard for the environment. Moving towards a circular economy, and adopting more sustainable practices such as recycling or using alternative materials, would benefit the environment and the economy. Now is the time to change the status quo and make it so that we are not only great at building boats, but also great at considering their whole lifecycle and what happens to them at the end of their life. The conversation of sustainability is at the centre of industry innovation, so it is the perfect time for the boating industry to tackle its current pollution issues.

Thank you for your screen time.

Making change is difficult. We have to rethink our entire way of being as a species and our place as the custodians of this beautiful pale blue dot.  Not all the technologies and knowledge is in place, or even exists, but we can still help our beloved Earth.

This article was written by Natasha Posnett. 

References Rees, A., Turner, A., Comber, S. 2014. Metal contamination of sediment by paint peeling from abandoned boats, with particular reference to lead. Science of the Total Environment 494, 313-319. Ciocan, C. 2020. Abandoned fibreglass boats are harming the marine environment. Available at: https://www.marinetechnologynews.com/news/abandoned-fiberglas-boats-harming-603988

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