Breaking up is hard to do

By Martha Blanchfield
For Points East

For more than 70 years we have been producing boats made of fiberglass. The thing is, products of peak-production years between the 1970s and 1980s are now reaching the end of their useful lives. With millions of old boats headed for landfills over the next decade, the global boating industry faces an environmental challenge. It didn’t help that Mother Nature’s 2017 hurricane season increased that count.

The ELB issue has been gradually rising to the surface along shorelines and marinas in the form of abandoned, and no longer used vessels. While waves of older fiberglass boats continue to pile up, we continue to build boats using a concoction that doesn’t break down in the environment.

Boating is a major industry in America. As of 2016, there were an estimated 11.9 million registered boats in the U.S., the vast majority being made of fiberglass. An average fiberglass boat has a reasonable lifespan of 30 to 40 years – often more. And therein lies the problem: Fiberglass is not an eco-friendly material. And what is to be done with the boats when they’ve outlived their usefulness?

Production of durable and relatively lightweight fiberglass boats began to take off in the 1960s as manufacturers were able to quickly and affordably produce them for a growing middle class. A boom in sales was seen between 1960 to the late 1970s. Developed in 1932-1933 by Russell Games Slayter of Owens-Corning as a thermal building insulation, this invention was marketed under the trade name Fiberglas. Dan Spurr, former editor at “Practical Sailor” and author of “Heart of Glass” – a history of fiberglass sailboats – wrote that Ray Greene, of Toledo, Ohio, was the first to build a fiberglass and polyester sailboat in 1942. It was likely a Snipe, he said. Spurr tags development of polyester resin as the tipping point for this fiberglass revolution.

Today’s fiberglass is composed of silica, sand and other naturally occurring materials that are combined to become a molten glass, then spun into thin glass fibers and woven together with a bonding agent. Fiberglass is strong, lightweight, and relatively inexpensive. It will not corrode, even when exposed to salt water. Versus wood, steel and aluminum, fiberglass is less energy-intensive to develop. The problem is, fiberglass is nearly impossible to recycle and must be handled properly so as to not let its toxins collect in landfills.

Fortunately, private industry and organizations such as World Sailing (www.sailing.org), the global governing body for the sport of sailing, are taking on the fiberglass challenge. Peter Franklin, environmental sustainability coordinator (leisure marine) for the METSTRADE online community (www.metstrade.com), states: “With regard to the end-of-life of boats, World Sailing recognizes that this is a growing issue, and that, along with some other industries, the difficulty in recycling or reusing fiberglass-reinforced plastic (FRP) is challenging.”

“I think that we have to work with other industries to find common solutions for FRP,” said Franklin of new production efforts. “While the issue has been gaining momentum in the number of studies, generally there needs to be a commercially viable solution which usually requires a threshold of material.

“There have been encouraging developments in some areas where carbon fiber can be recycled, and we are seeing some exciting results from the use of basalt fiber. Ultimately, a life-cycle assessment approach will be used to identify areas of focus, and we hope to develop a comprehensive tool that can be used by the marine industry for this purpose.”

The U.S. is behind Europe in addressing our growing stockpiles of forgotten fiberglass. Europe is a leader on the recycle-reuse front, with nations such as Holland, Norway, France and Germany stepping to the plate. Speaking at the 2015 METSTRADE Conference, Albert Willemsen, environmental consultant for the International Council of Marine Industry Associations (ICOMIA), feels that a process to govern not only ELBs, but also the design and production of new vessels is smart. “The problem is growing year by year . . .” he said. “We need to have a united EU or global system . . . like the automotive industry but focused on the recreational marine industry . . . you pay for this when you buy the car, and I believe we need to develop a similar system for boats. The best thing is prevention, then to reuse everything that can be reused.”

Willemsen favors dismantling the boat, then seeking additional uses for its parts. “When that’s not possible, disposal is the only option left. That usually means burning or burying in a landfill.”

Denmark, Germany & Switzerland

Fiberglass recycling options are slowly emerging in these countries, Willemsen said. “There have been test projects in several countries . . . and the results are promising . . . it’s possible to separate the resin from the fibers and reuse both, especially in things like fillers.”

One such success is from Fiberline Composites, of Denmark, which manufactures fiberglass and carbon-fiber structural profiles and wind-turbine components. Fiberline has partnered with Germany’s Zajons, which specializes in converting waste to alternative fuels for industry, and Holcim, a Swiss-based global building materials and aggregates company. Under the contract, surplus fiberglass from Fiberline’s production in Denmark will be shipped south to become a key constituent of cement.

The alliance is a win-win: Fiberline gains the waste solution it’s been seeking for years, and Holcim can use both the energy and the minerals of fiberglass for cement production, thereby saving on both fossil fuels and raw materials.

A next step will be to reach the consumer at a point of recycling. Notes Benedikte Jørgensen, Fiberline’s sustainability manager, on their website: “In the short term, this contract marks an important breakthrough for our company, but the next step will naturally be to look at a formalized collection scheme that also meets customer and user needs by ensuring that their fiberglass waste . . . will not simply pile up but be recycled.”

Italy

Here, the “Composite Upcycling” initiative developed in cooperation with the National Institute for Polymers, Composites and Biomaterials is making innovations with fiberglass reuse. “Fiberglass is ground and combined with polystyrene-type polymers,” says World Sailing’s Peter Franklin on the METSTRADE website. “It is then combined with a surfactant [a compound that lowers the surface tension between two liquids, between a gas and a liquid, or between a liquid and a solid] and heat-treated at a relatively low temperature . . . . The result is a new inert composite that can be used either as pellets to produce molds (e.g, computer casings), or in sheets to make furnishing accessories (e.g., luxury kitchen tops, or flooring).

“The waste GRP material is thus reinserted into the production cycle without being destined for landfill disposal or a high-energy reduction process. An additional benefit is that the new compound is a thermoplastic material, and, therefore, at the end of its new life-cycle, it can be recycled once again.”

Also in Italy, the Milan firm GS4C Sustainable Solutions is building a 100-percent recyclable Mini650 speedster for the 2019 Mini Transat singlehanded transatlantic race. Designed by Skyronlabdesign, the Loop Mini650 will be built out of Filava, a basalt fiber enriched with various mineral additives to increase and guarantee original mechanical and chemical properties. The product was developed by the Belgian Company Isomatex S.A. The recyclable epoxy resin – Super Sap bio-based epoxy, from Entropy – is another chief component.

Norway

Composite boat parts are most often made from cross-linked polyester and fiberglass; the combination yields a light, yet strong, material. The molecular bonds between these two substances are strong, ideal for boats but difficult to break down. This property has been an inhibitor to progress on the recycle- and-reuse front.

In 2008, Norwegian recycling company Veolia joined SINTEF Materials and Chemistry, the Norwegian Composite Association, Reichhold (a composite company) and Nordboat to seek ways to recycle end-of-life boats. Their mission included assessing the feasibility of collecting, dismantling and transporting cast-off recreational boats. SINTEF, the largest independent research organization in Scandinavia, has developed a chemical process that’s reportedly effective at separating cross-linked polyester and fiberglass for the purpose of reuse.

“The level of usability varies from property to property but is around 80 percent,” said SINTEF research director Fabrice Lapique in the article “New System Created for Recycling Composite Boats,” published on the website New Atlas.

“And best of all is that the process is easy to implement in an industrial context. Within two hours, more than 80 percent of the material has been dissolved and the temperature during the process does not exceed 220 degrees.”

This is good news for the possible reconditioning of old fiberglass.

Netherlands

In the Netherlands, Stichting Jacht Recycling was created to find safe ways to dispose of old yachts. “Yachts are not built to be recycled. Most are now GFRP (glass-fiber reinforced plastic) rather than steel, and this is a very big problem. At most, only about 10 to 20 percent of an average GFRP boat can be turned back into raw materials,” explained yacht surveyor and Stichting Jacht Recycling’s COO Boj van Baars in the article “End-of-Life Yachts: Best Dutch Practices,” published by the e-magazine NauticExpo. “The rest winds up in a landfill or is burned. There has been a lot of discussion in Europe about this problem. We said we could either go on talking or step up to do something about it.”

Safely disposing of an old boat is both complex and costly: Each vessel must be individually analyzed piece by piece. “Fuel, engine oil and lubricants, for example, must be disposed of by specialist chemical operators, as must batteries and fridges,” says Van Baars. “Our job is to assess the boat and then obtain the permits and other paperwork so we can work with these companies. Some yachts even contain asbestos, which poses a particular problem, not only in disposal but also in transportation, particularly across borders.”

To more fully address the ELB challenge, Van Baars favors a multi-pronged solution that includes legislation to facilitate recycling and disposal, plus yacht registration to reduce the incidence of abandonment whereby successive owners contribute to the final disposal of the yacht. A “shared ambition” between manufacturers, governments and the marine industry could serve as “a financing mechanism for end-of-life treatment – the addition of a recycling fee to boat-insurance or port fees, or recycling rewards when another yacht is purchased. A few companies like ours will continue to dismantle and do what they can,” he added. “But the answer is also for the yacht materials themselves to be much more recyclable.”

France

In France, a new federal Eco Tax specifically created to fund the disposal of ELBs went into effect Jan. 1, 2018. “France is one of the few countries with regulations governing the dismantling and recycling of recreational vessels. But with economic and psychological hurdles, and problems reusing fiberglass, the obstacles are numerous,” said Benoît Ribeil in the article, “Boat Recycling Faces Heavy Weather,” published by the e-magazine NauticExpo. Benoît is a project officer at APER (Association pour la Plaisance Eco), an organization involved with deconstruction and recycling of boats.

In the same article Ribeil was asked to comment on what he feels hinders boat recycling. “Several things. First, there’s a significant sentimental aspect. A boat has a history rich with many memories. It’s not like a lightbulb, a telephone or even a car. You don’t just toss it aside. Then there’s the learning curve. Until now, no one thought about how to dismantle or recycle a boat . . . that means that today there’s a real need to address the psychological aspects and explain why it’s important to recycle boats the same way we recycle other things.

“Last, there are economic and regulatory aspects . . . in addition, the law doesn’t compel a boat owner to dismantle the vessel, though this is changing in France. Since dismantling costs money, the owner prefers to stick the boat in the back yard, sink it, burn it, abandon it, or sell it cheaply to get rid of the problem. That’s today’s mindset.”

Finland

Finland has had a fiberglass-boat waste-disposal system in place for many years. In the summer of 2005, a small ferry began sailing around the islands of the Turku archipelago to collect several hundred unwanted boats free of charge. The effort attracted the attention of northern Europe recycling company Kuuaskoski Oyj, which continues to supervise the crushing of gathered boats.

Canada

Closer to home, Canada has initiated an Abandoned Boats Program (ABP), and the government is funding efforts to the tune of up to $5.6 million over five years. Monies are earmarked for education and outreach, plus grants and contributions to assist in the removal of abandoned and/or wrecked small boats. A key element of educational outreach is to increase boat owner awareness about proper end of life management. For more details, visit www.tc.gc.ca/en/programs-policies/programs/abandoned-boats-program.html.

United States

The U.S. seems to lag when compared with European efforts. Until recently, owners in the States had three options to dispose of an end-of-life boat: illegally abandon, haul to landfill, or find a facility able to dismantle (for a fee), part-out, then chop up and recycle the fiberglass portion. Fortunately, innovative U.S. firms such as Plasti-Fab and American Fiber Green Products are initiating eco-efforts to invent reuse paths for old fiberglass.

Plasti-Fab, in Ridgefield, Wash., has found a way to close the loop on production and recycle, all while reducing negative emissions. A major producer of FRP composites, the company has invented a grinder machine that can collect waste, trim and overspray materials, and create a compound for reuse in several closed-mold manufacturing processes. The production process is not only cleaner, but it also yields a recycled material to replace non-biodegradable foam core (www.plasti-fab.com/recycling-fiberglass-frp-manufacturing).

From their newer plant in Florida, American Fiber Green Products recycling entity, Amour Fiber Core, is transforming old fiberglass into wood-substitute planks that go into picnic tables, fencing, seawalls and more. Amour takes fiberglass from boats, car and truck bodies, personal watercraft, shower stalls, and other fiberglass wastes, then recycles all into high-strength, durable commercial and consumer products. This Florida company will take old boats (for a fee), and most locations have a pick-up service.

Closer to home, one company that will haul away old boats is BoatDump.com, with operation zones including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Their website states: “Most complete junk or unwanted boats can be removed at no cost, whether they are running or not,” and “All junk and unwanted boats are properly disposed of and not dumped on the side of the road.”

In the U.S. there are opportunities for companies to take leadership roles and make the boating industry more environmentally sustainable. Here at Points East we recognize the growing issue over fiberglass recycling and the end-of-life boat challenge. We encourage readers to add suggestions and share comments about what communities are doing. Have you heard about companies or associations tackling this challenge? Do you know of innovative reduce-and-reuse programs? We’ll combine your comments into a list of resources our website.

Martha Blanchfield is a racer/writer/photographer with a keen interest in San Francisco Bay regattas. As editor and founder of digital magazine RenegadeSailing.com, she profiles the international waterside lifestyle and occasionally pokes fun at the loves and lives of sailors. Her photography and copy appear in “Nautique” (Netherlands publication), the “Panerai Classic Yachts Regatta” annual, “San Francisco Chronicle,” “Latitude 38,” “J/Boat” newsletter, “Points East,” “Classic Yacht,” “Adventure Sports Journal” and soon “Classic Boats” (U.K.).

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