Giving old boats new life

We explore the boat recycling innovations and initiatives that are underway.

Many of us have seen a sad-looking old boat floating abandoned near a harbour. It may not be a surprising sight, considering they can be so difficult to dispose of – let alone recycle.

We’re all familiar with the now-ubiquitous recycling schemes for glass, plastic and paper, but what about larger, miscellaneous items, such as boats? Perhaps these more complex items have been left by the wayside through the decades, but there are now some initiatives underway that may make recycling these vessels easier.  

In 2022, £29 million was spent landfilling boats, according to James Scott-Anderson of environmental and sustainability consultancy Blue Parameters. It’s not only that these abandoned vessels cause an eye sore; waste can leak into the soil and cause pollution. This is particularly true for glass reinforced plastic (GRP), or other types of fiberglass, made up of fibers melded together with resin and other materials.

Perceiving the pollution problem

The Guardian previously reported on the environmental nuisance of abandoned fiberglass boats, which have become popular since the 1960s, and which leach toxins or microscopic plastics into the ocean once abandoned. Getting rid of these boats is a problem for their owners and countries with overstretched landfill. 

This is why it’s been common for people to drill a hole in the hull and leave the boat to sink offshore. But scientists are concerned that dumping boats this way fuels the global microplastic problem. The resins’ microparticles contain phthalates, a big group of chemicals associated with ocean pollution, and health risks to humans. These traces of paints from decaying boats were found by Plymouth University researchers in sediments and even the guts of ragworms in two estuaries of eastern England.

From fiberglass to flowerpots

To find a recycling solution, we must take into account the complexity of the variety of materials used on a boat, from the hull, engines, foam, paints, and upholstery to the metal parts. Boat hulls are notoriously hard to deconstruct, not only due to the fiberglass structure, but extracting it from the resin. To get around this, scientists have typically used solvents to clean resin polymers from other components. However, as reported in a recent article by Mewburn Ellis, a collaboration between companies, consultancies and the National Composites Centre is seeking to approach the issue in a new way, under the banner of the “Blue Composites Project”.

The Blue Composites Project makes use of the “DEECOM” process developed in the 2000s by BM Longworth in which pressure swings between cycles of decompression and compression allow superheated steam to separate polymers from the fiberglass filler.  Whilst early results look promising in terms of recovering the fiberglass component, the team are looking at ways to improve recovery of the resin, and to make the process economic and (it is hoped) profitable.   

Meanwhile, other initiatives are tackling the challenge. Some groups in Norway have been grinding fiberglass to a powder material that can be reused to make items like flowerpots or even benches. 

Generally, recycling old boats can be complex due to the variety of components on board. As a result, attempts to recycle are labour-intensive, and costs to recycle often supersede the value of the salvaged materials. Hopefully, initiatives like that of The Blue Composite Project can scale up and become more economic in time, so that we can start to see less old boats left to decay away by the water’s edge. 

Clarissa Wright

Clarissa Wright is a freelance science journalist and Editor of NatureVolve