With so many yachts made of glass fiber-reinforced plastic (GFRP) since the 1960’s, end-of-life disposal is far from plain sailing. In the Netherlands, Stichting Jacht Recycling was created two and a half years ago to find safe ways to dispose of old yachts.
Many vessel parts pose a risk to the environment when abandoned. “Yachts are not built to be recycled. Most are now GFRP 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 winds up in a landfill or is burned.
Van Baars and his colleague Hans van Smoorenburg launched their company in 2014 to try to find safe methods for disposing of vessel constituents. “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,” he tells us.
Safely disposing of an old yacht is both complex and costly.
However, safely disposing of an old yacht is both complex and costly. Each has to be assessed individually before being dismantled and disposed of piece by piece. “Fuel, engine oil and lubricants, for example, must be disposed of by specialist chemical operators, as must batteries and fridges,” he says.
“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. This is when the costs can go sky high.”
A Sixty-Four Million Dollar Question
Experts admit it is difficult to calculate how many end-of-life yachts there are in the world. “The sixty-four million dollar question” is how Stuart Carruthers, General Secretary of the European Boating Association, describes the issue of yacht disposal and recycling. “If you’re a country like the UK, you don’t see it as a problem because the landfill laws allow disposal. But in Sweden, the material cannot be recycled or go into a landfill. In France, the laws allow them to recycle much more easily, and they are making an end product that can go into roads and tiles.”
Research shows that GFRP can be reduced to fine particles and mixed into cement and molding compounds, but the costs of dismantling, transporting and recycling are high. Carruthers suggests that if GFRP remains difficult to recycle, we are “building a legacy problem.” This means the issue must be addressed at the source. “We need to do something about the design, the components and the material of these yachts.”
“This problem must be treated holistically. Industry cannot keep pumping out something that is a problem to recycle at the end of its life. Governments need to regulate for effect, as they did in the car industry.”
A Multi-Faceted Solution
Boj van Baars suggests a multi-faceted solution. He, too, calls for legislation to facilitate recycling and disposal, but also presses for yacht registration to reduce the incidence of abandonment. He suggests that successive owners contribute to the final disposal of the yacht.
Van Baars is joined by Gert-Jan van der Have, European Project Manager at ARN, a Netherlands-based compliance organization for end-of-life vehicles. He looks to a “shared ambition” between manufacturers, governments and the marine industry: “There needs to be 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 suggests.
Van Baars stresses that “We can’t ignore this problem. But to be honest, I do not expect to see much change within the next 10 years. 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.“
“Making cars recyclable from cradle to grave has become a priority, but the same is not happening with yachts. Architects, manufacturers and legislators need to be focusing more on steel again rather than GFRP. Otherwise, 40 years from now we’re going to be stuck with even more of this material we cannot get rid of.”