Abandoned boats are piling up, and the industry has no efficient system for dealing with them. The good news is that fiberglass can be recycled, but the big issue is volume.
Two years ago, the industry organized a conference on reuse and recycling at METS. At this year’s show, the subject is drawing renewed attention, this time focusing on sustainability. According to Albert Willemsen, environmental consultant for the International Council of Marine Industry Associations (ICOMIA), a current major concern is the absence of an EU-wide or global system to deal with abandoned boats.
“The problem is growing year by year. Although not proven, we suspect that the financial crisis 10 years ago increased the number of abandoned boats. We need to have a united EU or global system for this, like the automotive industry, but focused on the recreational marine industry.”
Reuse, Recycle or Throw Away
Recycling is not the only option, Willemsen explained. “The best thing is prevention, then to reuse everything that can be reused. The process starts with dismantling the boat. If something cannot be reused, then we look for recycling options. When that’s not possible, disposal is the only option left. That usually means burning or burying in a landfill.”
Right now, the price for this process is high in some member states—around 2000 euros, according to Willemsen. Boat owners who cannot afford this tend to just abandon the boat.
“The problem is volume. To get rid of a car costs 150-200 euros. The reason is that millions of cars are recycled every year. You pay for this when you buy the car, and I believe we need to develop a similar system for boats. This is one of the current discussions we are having.”
Fiberglass Can Be Recycled
Most leisure craft are built using fiberglass. But can it be recycled? “Yes it can,” confirmed Willemsen. “There have been test projects in several countries—Italy, Norway, Japan, France, Finland and others—and the results are promising. The issue again is volume. It has to be financially viable. But it’s possible to separate the resin from the fibers and reuse both, especially in things like fillers. And we should remember that a lot of other materials are used for boats too: wood, steel, aluminum.”
“It’s possible to separate the resin from the fibers and reuse both.”
Recycling on a large scale will not arrive overnight. But Willemsen remains optimistic.
“I like to start slowly and go step-by-step in the right direction. I have 30 years of experience in the boat industry. In the beginning, everybody laughed when I talked about the need for recycling. Today, the discussion is completely natural. I believe we should think along the lines of product stewardship.”
The concept of product stewardship is becoming increasingly popular in many different industries. The idea is that everyone involved should reduce the product’s environmental, health and safety impacts throughout its lifespan. That includes designers, producers, retailers and consumers.
“Container deposit legislation is a good example. You pay an extra price for a bottle, apart from the content, and get it back when you return the bottle. In a lot of countries, when you buy paint or car tires, you also pay a fee to cover handling the toxic waste the products will become at the end of their lifespan,” said Willemsen.
He maintains that many countries are now seriously interested in this topic. “Holland, Norway, France and Germany, as well as non-European nations such as Japan, the US and Australia, are all taking part in the discussions. Sustainability is something that should be taken seriously by the boat industry. I believe boat recycling will be implemented as a natural thing in a not-so-distant future.”
Read more about Boat recycling in our special issue #9: