Fed up with continually maintaining wooden boats against rot and infestation, man came up with a cunning plan in the early 1960s: build yachts out of fibreglass.
However, what seemed like a brilliant idea at the time has come back to haunt sailors worldwide. Old, unloved and derelict hulls are now forgotten or abandoned. Because of their refusal to rot, they are becoming a maritime pollutant and an eyesore wherever others want to sail.
For generations, boats have been produced following a simple model: build, use, and dispose. While this may have been fine in the days when wood was the primary boat building 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.
Abandoned boats are now a common sight on estuaries and beaches around the world. Most of them are leaking heavy metals and micro-glass particles into the water. Those microparticles are from the resins holding the fibreglass together and contain phthalates, a massive group of chemicals associated with severe human health impacts from ADHD to breast cancer, obesity and male fertility issues.
A lot of boats that should be properly disposed of wind up for sale through eBay for desperately small sums, with an owner hoping to pass responsibility for disposal to someone else
Corina Ciocan, a senior lecturer in marine biology at the University of Brighton in the UK, says it is time to start paying attention to the threats these wrecks pose to human health and to local coastal marine ecosystems.
Beyond the fibreglass, there is a range of chemicals or materials found in old boats that pose hazards: rubber, plastic, wood, metal, textiles and of course, oil. Asbestos was once used extensively as an insulator on exhaust systems. Leaded paints were commonly used as a corrosion inhibitor, alongside mercury-based compounds and tributyltin (TBT) as antifouling agents.
“Although we lack evidence on the human impact of TBT, lead and mercury are well recognised as neurotoxins,” says Ciocan.
And then there are the repairs made in boatyards. Grinding away at fibreglass boats, often in the open, creates clouds of airborne dust. Workers have not always worn masks and some succumbed to asbestosis-like diseases. Inevitably, some of the dust finds its way back into the water.
The problem of end-of-life boat management and disposal has gone global, and many island nations are worried about their already overstretched landfills.
It has been estimated that worldwide, somewhere between 35 to 40 million boats are now approaching the end of their life. A recent study found that in the United States, there are more than 12 million recreational boats in use. According to the National Marine Manufacturer’s Association, roughly 250,000 new boats are sold every year.
In Europe, there are six million boats in use. Of these, 95% are made of fibreglass or GRP (Glass Reinforced Plastic). Every year, between 1 and 2% of these reach the end of their useful life. Only 2,000 of those boats are recycled, leaving the rest abandoned or kept by reluctant owners who simply cannot afford to dispose of their boats responsibly.
Boats are often simply dumped once the cost of disposal exceeds the resale value. Those old hulls then become the problem of some unlucky landowner or beachgoer.
A lot of boats that should be properly disposed of wind up for sale through eBay for desperately small sums, with an owner hoping to pass responsibility for disposal to someone else.
“Insurers are reluctant to provide cover for GRP hulls over a certain age, citing osmosis as an obvious reason. Coverage is often only buyable with a good condition survey,” says Caspar McDonald of Howden Sturge, a yacht insurance brokerage.
When it comes to boats, no-one wants to accept liability for their end-of-life disposal.
In the UK, Steve Frankland, a marine surveyor, has made it his business to tackle the problem. Frankland founded Boat Beakers, a firm that breaks down and disposes of old boats. He has ambitions to expand into Asia.
“Boat insurance companies say they don’t break boats up; they give them back to the owners who have to deal with it. Marinas won’t pay to have abandoned boats removed; they just put them on eBay and sell them for almost nothing to get rid of them. Anyone can buy a boat for a song, strip it of anything with value and then dump the hull somewhere,” Frankland says. “It’s so unethical.”
And yet, boat breaking is not a cheap undertaking. Our own research for this article suggests that in Europe, GRP boats can cost between €300 and €1,000 per metre to correctly dispose of, depending on location and condition. In the USA, that figure tops €1,500 per metre.
Incineration of GRP is not practical since about 50 to 70% of the material is mineral and would be left as ash, which still needs to be landfilled.
The problem of disposing of recreational boats is nowhere near as bad in Asia as it is in Europe or the US. But there are plenty of cheap fibreglass boats used by local fishermen. And as the popularity of recreational boating increases, the problem of old hulls polluting shorelines will inevitably get worse.
In Hong Kong, the Marine Department has a contractor with a barge that will take any old boat away, or pick up abandoned boats, and simply dump them in the landfill, according to Alan Reid, marina manager at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club.
Godfrey Zwygart, a well-known yachting authority on China, says that in Asia, there is now concern over the environmental cost of fibreglass and the appeal of aluminium is growing. “Lightweight aluminium alloys are the eco-friendly answer to fibreglass for a new generation of yacht owners in Asia,” says Zwygart, who recently became the dealer for Dynamiq, which builds yachts in aluminium.
There are new solutions on the way. In the United States, most owners who can’t sell turn to boat donation programmes as there are tax breaks associated with donating an asset to charity. But, if you can’t give the boat away, what happens to it?
In Florida, a company called Eco-Wolf Inc uses patented technology to grind fibreglass scrap and turn it into bathtubs and home furnishings.
Ryds Battindustri AB, Sweden’s largest boatbuilder, began experimenting with fibreglass recycling about 10 years ago. The company has since produced prototype boats built with up to 20% recycled fibreglass content and hopes to bring the technology to its production models.
Two major environmental projects into boat recycling have been commissioned in Europe. The first, Boatcycle, produced guidelines for building boats in a more sustainable way and suggesting ways of dismantling and recycling boats. The second, Boat Digest, provides training and accreditation for boat dismantling.
In the UK, the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) has suggested there should be a premium either on insurance or on new sales, so that when a boat reaches the end of its life, the owner can ask a qualified disposal agent to collect it no matter how much they paid for it, or how old the boat is. “Boat manufacturers need to think about the long-term impact of what they are doing and contribute to the boats’ eventual disposal,” says Phil Horton, RYA’s environment and sustainability manager.
“Legislation will be the driver of change,” writes Simon Bray, a marine ecologist commissioned by the IMO to study this issue in 2019. The focus of Bray’s report was to help small, developing island-states deal with the influx of discarded fibreglass boats. He recommended a levy system on new boat sales and owner registration that would fund recycling programmes aimed at boats and yachts.
In Canada, the government has paid to have derelict boats removed from its coasts. In 2018, the Swedish government provided €30,000 in subsidies to scrap 500 boats under three tonnes. To qualify for free disposal, owners had to pay any transportation costs. As of yet, there are no similar schemes in Asia.
France may be leading the way. Ten years ago, the country established 40 specialised recycling centres for decaying boats. French shipbuilders are now charged a fee for each yacht produced.
A new federal Eco Tax specifically created to fund the disposal of end-of-life boats has recently come into efect and is applied to all recreational watercraft, from sailboats to power boats up to 24 metres in length.
Stella Job, a composite manufacturing expert and consultant with Grazebrook Innovation, says that facilities to recycle GRP only exist in Germany. She also says it is “prohibitively expensive” for companies in Asia to recycle GRP, leaving Asia’s already-stretched landfills the only option for now.