All washed up

Mil­lions of boats built dur­ing the glory days of the 1970s and 80s are now com­ing to the end of their lives. We can’t just shove them all into land­fill, so what hap­pens with all these old hulls?

Boating NZ - - Contents - BY CRAIG RITCHIE

Fi­bre­glass boats are a chal­lenge to re­cy­cle.

If there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s build­ing boats. Ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Coun­cil of Marine In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tions (ICOMIA) there are more than 40 mil­lion recre­ational boats in the world right now. And that fig­ure con­tin­ues to grow, as more and more boats make their way home from dealer show­rooms each year.

On the other hand, what we’re not good at is fig­ur­ing out what hap­pens to all of these boats when they come to the end of their lives. If even one per­cent of those 40 mil­lion boats reach end-of-life each year, that’s ap­prox­i­mately 400,000 boats headed for land­fill. And that fig­ure is only go­ing to in­crease when we start to see big­ger num­bers of boats – the prod­ucts of the boom years in the 1970s and 1980s, when boats were built in huge vol­umes – come to their fi­nal days. Many of those ves­sels are now ap­proach­ing, or ex­ceed­ing, 40 years of age.

The dis­cus­sion around end-of-life boats has taken on a new tone over the last few years. From some­thing that sim­ply wasn’t dis­cussed – ever – the dis­posal of old boats has more re­cently be­come the sub­ject of mul­ti­ple in­dus­try con­fer­ences and think­tanks, which have all sought to raise aware­ness of the prob­lem and come up with work­able so­lu­tions.

The big­gest is­sue is that fi­bre­glass boats sim­ply don’t break down eas­ily for cost-ef­fi­cient re­cy­cling. That be­ing the case, no

one wants to touch them be­cause there is sim­ply not enough money to be made in scrap­ping old boats. Right now, the vast ma­jor­ity of old boats are sim­ply cut up and buried in land­fill.

But with lit­er­ally tens of mil­lions of boats headed for the dump over the next sev­eral years, and each hull hav­ing the po­ten­tial to leach a va­ri­ety of toxic chem­i­cals like formalde­hyde into the ground wa­ter, end-of-life boats rep­re­sent a grow­ing prob­lem.


Peter Franklin, one of the or­gan­is­ers of the Fu­ture of

Yacht Re­cy­cling Con­fer­ence held in Am­s­ter­dam, says that while boat re­cy­cling op­er­a­tions in Ja­pan, Swe­den, Canada and France have met with vary­ing lev­els of suc­cess, it will take a more con­certed ef­fort to make boat re­cy­cling a prof­itable propo­si­tion on a global scale.

“Right now, no one is mak­ing any money at this,” says Franklin. “But by shar­ing our col­lec­tive knowl­edge and fo­cus­ing at­ten­tion on the sit­u­a­tion, the hope is that we can de­velop ways of re­cy­cling fi­bre­glass boats more eco­nom­i­cally.”

The ques­tion of who should pay to dis­pose of old boats isn’t eas­ily an­swered, but it’s a ques­tion the boat­ing in­dus­try would be wise to tackle be­fore gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tory agen­cies elect to an­swer it for them. In France, a new fed­eral Eco Tax specif­i­cally

De­sign­ing boats with an eye to their even­tual de­con­struc­tion will al­low boats to re­tain greater value at ev­ery stage of their life, in­clud­ing the end of it.

cre­ated to fund the dis­posal of end-of-life boats came into ef­fect on Jan­uary 1, 2018.

“The tax is ap­plied to all recre­ational wa­ter craft, from sail­boats to power boats to ca­noes – all boats up to 24 me­tres in length,” says Pierre Bar­bleu, man­ager of France’s APER Net­work. “There is a high cost to dis­man­tling boats, and no one wants to pay. So, the gov­ern­ment has de­cided who will.”

The prob­lem with this ap­proach, says Bar­bleu, is that the num­ber of old boats in the pipe­line grossly out­weighs the num­ber of new boats be­ing sold. “There are boats now com­ing to the end of their life from over the past 40 years,” he says. “But to­day fewer peo­ple buy boats so the cost, pro­por­tion­ally, is go­ing to be higher than it should be. Now the tax will make get­ting a boat even more ex­pen­sive and dis­cour­age new peo­ple from be­com­ing in­ter­ested in boat­ing. It’s go­ing to hurt ev­ery­one.”


For gen­er­a­tions, boats have been pro­duced fol­low­ing a lin­ear, ‘cra­dle-to-grave’ eco­nomic model of build, use, and dis­pose. While this may have been fine in the days when wood was the pri­mary boat­build­ing ma­te­rial, the adop­tion of fi­bre­glass changed ev­ery­thing. The two main is­sues are the en­vi­ron­men­tal con­sid­er­a­tions of dump­ing huge quan­ti­ties of fi­bre­glass into land­fill, and the lost value of po­ten­tially re­us­able ma­te­ri­als.

Steven Beck­ers, pres­i­dent of the Brus­sels-based Lat­eral Think­ing Fac­tory, says that boats should be de­signed fol­low­ing a cir­cu­lar model in­stead, one which

in­cludes pro­vi­sion for be­ing re­cy­cled at the end of their life.

“Ma­te­ri­als should be used, not con­sumed,” says Beck­ers. “We need to think of prod­ucts like boats as raw ma­te­rial banks for the fu­ture. Ma­te­ri­als ap­pre­ci­ate in value over time. De­sign­ing boats with an eye to their even­tual de­con­struc­tion will al­low boats to re­tain greater value at ev­ery stage of their life, in­clud­ing the end of it.”

Beck­ers ad­vo­cates a cir­cu­lar eco­nomic model, which fol­lows a ‘cra­dle-to-cra­dle’ con­cept of build, use, then re­cy­cle into some­thing else. He con­tends that the cost of re­cy­cling boats can be dra­mat­i­cally re­duced if they were de­signed from the out­set to be eas­ier to de­con­struct. Be­cause re­cy­clable ma­te­ri­als re­tain some resid­ual value through the boat’s life, he says a boat’s ini­tial ac­qui­si­tion cost can be par­tially off­set by the fu­ture value of its re­cy­clable con­tent.

Beck­ers likens it to com­mer­cial ships, which re­tain con­sid­er­able value as scrap me­tal even after they’re no longer fit to go to sea. “Recre­ational boat builders need to adopt this way of think­ing,” he says. “Be­cause with the present way of do­ing things there is too much waste, and it costs ev­ery­body too much money.”

In the auto in­dus­try, the con­cept of re­tained value at end-of-life has been em­braced for years, al­low­ing deal­ers to prof­itably ac­cept end-of-life ve­hi­cles on trade know­ing they can be sub­se­quently resold at whole­sale for scrap. Not only do the me­tal com­po­nents re­tain value as scrap ma­te­rial, but so do the plas­tic and fi­bre­glass parts.

Amer­i­can au­tomaker Gen­eral Mo­tors helped de­velop fi­bre­glass re­cy­cling tech­nolo­gies back in the 1970s, when the ma­te­rial was first in­tro­duced in its Corvette sportscar. To­day, fi­bre­glass auto parts are prof­itably shred­ded into fi­bre­glass sliv­ers with mul­ti­ple uses, in­clud­ing serv­ing as a non-cor­ro­sive sub­sti­tute for tra­di­tional iron re­bar in cer­tain types of con­crete.

Fi­bre­glass can be re­cy­cled to make other fi­bre­glass prod­ucts – in­clud­ing boats. Ryds Bat­tin­dus­tri AB, Swe­den’s largest boat­builder, be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing with fi­bre­glass re­cy­cling about 10 years ago. While its ef­forts were put on hold by the 2008 eco­nomic down­turn, the com­pany has since pro­duced pro­to­type boats built with up to 20 per­cent re­cy­cled fi­bre­glass con­tent. It hopes to bring the tech­nol­ogy to its pro­duc­tion mod­els.

Be­yond the po­ten­tial for in­creased prof­its, Peter Franklin sees the need to de­velop a re­cy­cling pro­to­col as be­ing es­sen­tial to the long-range prof­itabil­ity of the boat in­dus­try. “Boat­builders need to pay at­ten­tion to this is­sue, be­cause the next gen­er­a­tion of buy­ers, the next big de­mo­graphic group of con­sumers, are more en­vi­ron­men­tally-aware than any that have gone be­fore them,” says Franklin. “Boat man­u­fac­tur­ers who pro­duce en­vi­ron­men­tally-sus­tain­able, re­cy­clable prod­ucts will be seen pos­i­tively, while a lack of re­cy­cla­bil­ity will re­flect badly on the oth­ers.”

With grow­ing num­bers of old boats soon com­ing to the ends of their lives, the boat­ing in­dus­try faces what can only be de­scribed as a loom­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lem, and one with the po­ten­tial to be­come a pub­lic re­la­tions quag­mire. Tak­ing a lead­er­ship role now in mak­ing the in­dus­try more en­vi­ron­men­tally sus­tain­able can only ben­e­fit man­u­fac­tur­ers and deal­ers alike, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously pro­vid­ing a long-term so­lu­tion to the grow­ing prob­lem of end-of-life boats. BNZ

BE­LOW Fin­ished but not gone.

RIGHT This mer­maid will swim no more, but she might take hun­dreds of years to de­com­pose.

ABOVE An aban­doned Sil­ver­ton lan­guishes amongst the trees.

LEFTAll that’s left of a de­cay­ing boat. Photo: Jeff Erd­man

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