The Boatbreakers team were recently contacted by Nigel Robinson who was writing a piece for The Cruising Association about end of life boat disposal. As always our team were more than happy to discuss the many issue we face in the boat disposal world.
Here is the article which Nigel kindly allowed us to feature on our Breaking Boats Blog.
Where do plastic boats go to die?
Disposal of old fibreglass boats has become a prominent topic in the marine press in the past few years. Since practical use of GRP composites started in the late 1940/50s, this rugged material has been the primary material used in construction of everything from dinghies to superyachts and includes the boats most of us use. But what do we do with them at the end of their lives?
Old wooden boats were often left to rot in marsh areas and even these can take years to degrade, but fibreglass will last hundreds of years, breaking down to produce masses of microplastics of which we have only recently become aware, as well as potentially harmful glass fibres. There are thousands of old boats throughout the UK and indeed the world. The EU suggests that 1-2% of over six million boats shorter than 24m reach the end of their life each year, that’s more than 6000 boats per year, yet only about 2000 per year are being recycled.
The UK Position
When a boat is dismantled, the metal parts, engines and electronics have well established recycling and disposal routes devised by the auto and waste industries and by legislation, but what happens to the often tonnes of glass fibre hull? They go to landfill. Car scrapyards are permitted and regularly inspected by the Environment Agency/SEPA/Natural Resources Wales, but there is no organised system for boat scrappage in the UK.
Boats can reach the end of their lives through age and decrepitude or simply due to mooring/storage fees, but others are insurance write-offs. We spoke to several insurance companies who all appear to shrug their shoulders over the problem and leave it to the owner to arrange disposal and just pay the bill. They generally go to landfill.
There appears to be only one specialised boat dismantling/scrapyard operation in the country. Boatbreakers (www.boatbreakers.com), based at Portsmouth, has thought through the required processes. it charges to receive a scrap boat, whether delivered under its own steam, towed or by road transport. It strips re-sellable items and then carries out proper dismantling with materials being recycled/recovered where possible. (It even sells some of the parts it recovers to the public via its site at www.boatscrapyard.com). However, the composite hull remains waste. It is ground down and then landfilled.
Boatbreakers has been trying to get scrapyards in other parts of the country to engage to provide a network, but to date with no success. It is probable that normal scrapyards may well take in occasional larger boats to dismantle, but with no proper permits or experience, the process is a rather grey area.
Many other items are also made from fibreglass and one significant one, with large volumes, is wind generator blades from wind farms. These are already becoming a major waste stream and there is significant pressure on the power industry to recycle these composite materials. Hopefully the marine industry can tag along on their developments.
ICOMIA, the International Council of Marine Industry Associations, has been publishing policy papers and research for end-of life boats, but different countries have been travelling at different speeds. The EU commissioned various research projects over the past 15 years or so as have individual companies and academic institutions..
Internationally there is increased awareness, and several research projects have looked at reuse/recycling of composite materials such as GRP. Canada, Japan and the Scandinavian countries have all been involved, but the best and most advanced example is France.
The French system is run by APER, a not-for-profit organisation created in 2009 by the French Nautical Industries Federation in conjunction with the Government. They have organised a network of companies around France with well-defined specifications and working practices, to dismantle end-of-life vessels with full documentation including how to finance the work. The network has some 20 companies involved, operating on 52 dismantling sites and now one in Martinique, the first such site in the West Indies.
The operations have to meet environmentally friendly requirements and they scrap all types of boats, not just fibreglass. The operators and sites have to be permitted under their equivalent of UK Waste Permitting Regulations and there is competition, which optimises costs.
APER recognises the problem that owners of old, low-value boats probably cannot realistically afford the full cost of scrappage (typically €500 to €3000) so the owner has to register into the system, and pay only to deliver the boat to the dismantler. The organisation and cost beyond delivery is managed by APER; and financed by salvage recycling by the dismantler, with the remainder from an eco-fund created by the government. All boatbuilders in France have to pay into the
fund for each new boat built (since Jan 2019) and it also takes a proportion of the cost of annual registration of all French boats.
Recycling glass-fibre composites
Fibreglass composites can be recycled either to produce energy or to recycle as construction materials. At present the two main avenues for recycling are:
- Crushed and ground GRP can be used in cement kilns, where the resin vaporises to provide energy for combustion and the mineral (glass) fraction melts and is incorporated as silicates in the cement manufacturing process. Close control and high temperatures ensure no pollutants other than water vapour and carbon dioxide are released.
- The Italian Institute of Polymers, Composites and Biomaterials has developed a patented process which up-cycles composites into new thermoplastic materials suitable to produce sheets or pellets for moulding or thermo-forming processes. It is understood these are mainly used for construction materials.
To make progress in the UK, either the Government/Environment Agency or British Marine needs to initiate action. In the meantime transporting your scrap boat to Portsmouth appears the only realistic and ethical route.
Written by Nigel Robinson from The Cruising Association (www.theca.org.uk)