Breaking Up Is Hard To Do
As appearing in June 2018 Points East magazine
Boating is a major industry in America. As of 2016, there was an estimated 11.9 million registered boats in the U.S.—the vast majority being made of fiberglass. An average fiberglass boat has a lifespan of 30 to 40 years. Durable and relatively lightweight, production of 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. Dan Spurr, editor at Practical Sailor and author of "Heart of Glass" (a book on the history of fiberglass sailboats), states that Ray Greene of Toledo, Ohio, was the first to build a fiberglass and polyester sailboat in 1942; it was likely a Snipe. Spurr tags development of polyester resin as the tipping point for this fiberglass revolution. Interesting to note though, a November/December 1999 Good Old Boat article by Steve Mitchell reads, “It turns out there were several earlier boats made of fiberglass and various plastic resins, but most of them were too brittle for practical use.” Unfortunately, fiberglass is not an eco-friendly material.
What is Fiberglass and How Did We Get Here?
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 (has since become a genericized trademark). 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. There are several types of fiberglass; a recipe that is quite hard and resembles plastic is used for boats, sports helmets, storage buildings and other products. Fiberglass is strong, lightweight and relatively inexpensive. It will not corrode, even when exposed to salt water. It can be made with virgin or recycled glass. 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.
For more than 70 years we have been producing boats made of fiberglass. The thing is, products of peak production years 1970s to 1980s are prior are reaching their ends of days. With millions of old boats headed for landfills over the next decade, the global boating industry faces an environmental challenge. It did not 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 does not break down in the environment.
What is the World Doing about Fiberglass?
Fortunately, private industry and organizations such as World Sailing, the global governing body for the sport of sailing as founded in 1907, are starting to take on the fiberglass challenge. Peter Franklin, Environmental Sustainability Coordinator (leisure marine) for the METSTRADE online community, states, “World Sailing’s Sustainability Agenda 2030 is a broad strategy for the next 12 years which focuses on a wide range of sustainability related targets in areas which World Sailing can control or influence. With regards 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 fibre reinforced plastic is challenging.” He further acknowledges there to be the issue of transporting larger boats to decommission sites, and properly parting-out. “For dinghies, the disposal is easier but we want to apply the waste hierarchy and ensure there is no reuse opportunity before the final disposal.”
Commenting on new production efforts, “I think that we have to work with other industries to find common solutions for FRP (fibre reinforced plastic). Whilst 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 places where carbon fibre can be recycled and we are seeing some exciting results from the use of basalt fibre. 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.”
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…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 and Germany
Fiberglass recycle options are slowly emerging. States Willemsen, “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 profiles. Fiberline has partnered with Zajons (Germany), which specializes in converting waste to alternative fuels for industry, and Holcim (Germany), subsidiary of the world leading cement manufacturer from Switzerland. 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 a waste solution that it has been seeking for many years, and Holcim can utilize both the energy, as well as minerals, of the 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 Fiberline’s Sustainability Manager Benedikte Jørgensen, “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–such as life-expired low energy windows–will not simply pile up, but be recycled.”
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, SINTEF Materials and Chemistry, the Norwegian Composite Association (Reichhold composite company) and Nordboat joined forces to seek ways to recycle end of life boats, plus assess the feasibility for collecting, dismantling and transporting cast-off recreational boats. SINTEF, headquartered in Trondheim, Norway, is the largest independent research organization in Scandinavia. Their team has developed a chemical process which is reportedly quite effective at separating cross-linked polyester and fiberglass for the purpose of reuse. Says SINTEF research director Fabrice Lapique, "The level of usability varies from property to property, but is around 80 per cent. And best of all is that the process is easy to implement in an industrial context. Within two hours, more than 80 per cent of the material has been dissolved and the temperature during the process does not exceed 220 degrees." This is good news for possible re-conditioning of old fiberglass.
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,” explains yacht surveyor and Stichting Jacht Recycling’s COO Boj van Baars. The rest wind-ups in a landfill or is burned. “There had 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.” Van Baars and his colleague Hans van Smoorenburg launched their company in 2014.
Safely disposing of an old yacht 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.” He goes on to say, “A few companies like ours will continue to dismantle and do what they can. But the answer is also for the yacht materials themselves to be much more recyclable.” See his comments in End of life Yachts: Best Dutch Practices.
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.
Finland has had a fiberglass boat waste disposal system in place for many years. In summer 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.
In France, a new federal Eco Tax specifically created to fund the disposal of ELBs went into effect January 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,” states Benoît Ribeil, project officer at APER (Association pour la Plaisance Eco), an organization involved with deconstruction and recycling of boats.
Celia Sampol’s article “Boat Recycling Faces Heavy Weather” asks Ribeil 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 light bulb, 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.”
In Italy, the “Composite Upcycling” initiative developed in cooperation with the National Institute for Polymers, Composites and Biomaterials is making innovations with fiberglass reuse. Says Franklin, “Fibreglass is ground and combined with polystyrene type polymers. It is then combined with a surfactant and heat-treated at a relatively low temperature (as compared to incineration). The result is a new inert composite that can be used either as pellets to produce molds (for example, computer casings), or in sheets to make furnishing accessories (for example, luxury kitchen tops, or new material for flooring, etc.). The waste GRP material is thus re-inserted 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.”
On another front, Italian design on target for the yachting crowd comes with the new Loop Mini650 from Milanese firm GS4C Sustainable Solutions. The company is developing a 100 percent recyclable sail racing boat for singlehanded cross-Atlantic racing. Filava™ fiber (basalt enriched with various mineral additives to increase and guarantee original mechanical and chemical properties) from Belgian Company Isomatex S.A., plus resin Super Sap bio-based epoxy from Entropy are chief components. The boat, designed by Skyronlabdesign, is destined to participate to the 2019 Mini Transat as the first boat made entirely of sustainable fiber and recyclable epoxy resin.
2016 Recreational Boating Industry Statistics data, International Council of Marine Industry Associations (ICOMIA):
- Boating has 142 million participants in the United States, 36 million across Europe, 12 million in Canada, 5 million in Australia
- U.S. 2016 annual retail spending on new and pre-owned boats, engines, aftermarket accessories and services totaled $36 billion, up 3.2% from 2015; the industry’s peak was in 2008
“How to Recycle Fiberglass and an Old Boat” from American Fiber Green Products:
- Place in a land fill (fiberglass has an estimated 400 year life cycle)
- Cut into pieces, then incinerate. Thermal oxidation is an unfortunate method: the supply is not steady, and the burning of fiberglass creates by–product ash, which will likely end up in the land fill.
- Recycle for reuse. American Fiber Green Products’ Amour process grinds up boats and can recycle 100% of the fiberglass.
Slide Show: Sustainability in the Marine Industry
What is the U.S. Doing?
The U.S. seems to lag when compared to 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 firms, such as Plasti-Fab and American Fiber Green Products, are initiating eco-efforts in the U.S. to keep the environment more clean and invent reuse paths for old fiberglass.Plasti-Fab in Ridgefield, Washington, has found a way to close the loop on production and recycle—all while reducing negative emissions. A major producer of fiberglass reinforced plastic (FRP) composites, the company has invented a grinder machine that can both collect various waste, trim and overspray materials, plus create a compound for reuse in several closed mold manufacturing processes. The production process is not only more clean, but yields a recycled material to replace non-biodegradable foam core. This newer product is a greener and stronger option. From their newer plant in Florida, American Fiber Green Products is transforming old fiberglass into wood-substitute planks that go into picnic tables, fencing, sea walls and more. The company has developed, tested and placed into commercial production a leading edge fiberglass reclamation technology—American Fiber Green Products’ Amour. Amour takes fiberglass from boats, car and truck bodies, jet ski, shower stalls and other fiberglass wastes, then recycles all into new 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 (in New England), one company that will haul away old boats is BoatDump.com, operation zones include 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.