With 9,000 GRP boats abandoned in Europe each year, finding disposal solutions isn't easy. Could new technologies be the answer? Nic Compton finds out

It’s the elephant in the cabin, the big question that’s been looming for decades: ‘What do we do with old GRP boats?’ writes Nic Compton.

Anyone who has been for a beach walk in popular boating areas in the UK can’t help but have noticed the growing number of abandoned boats accumulating on the foreshore or collecting moss up some leafy creek.

Most boatyards and marinas have their fair share of ‘derelicts’ which are clearly beyond economic repair.

A crane crushing a yacht

The cost of disposing of old boats is the biggest barrier. Credit: Boatbreakers

And yet the answer to the question of how to deal with this growing problem has been a resounding silence, simply because there wasn’t an answer.

Now, there are at last signs that solutions are beginning to emerge. And just in the nick of time.

But first, let’s remind ourselves of the scale of the problem.

According to a recent survey, there are an estimated six million boats in the EU alone, 95% of which are made of GRP (glass reinforced plastic).

Every year, around 1-2% (60,000-120,000) of these boats reach the end of their useful life.

Of these, only 2,000 are recycled, while 6,000-9,000 are abandoned.

It’s not clear what happens to the rest, but presumably they are kept going by their owners.

The Greenboats Flax 27 day sailer

Modern technologies, such as natural fibre composites, might make yachts going to landfill a thing of the past. Credit: Greenboats

The main obstacle to dealing with these old boats is, predictably enough, money.

Recycling old boats is an expensive business, costing an estimated €800 (£706) for a 7m (23ft) boat, rising to €1,500 (£1,324) for 10-12m (33-39ft) and up to €15,000 (£13,243) for boats over 15m (50ft) long.

Here in the UK, Boatbreakers in Portsmouth – the biggest yard dedicated to recycling boats in the UK – charge around £100 per foot, or £3,000 for a 30ft yacht, though the price varies depending on location and the boat’s condition.

It’s an unfortunate law of nature that the older the boat gets, the less affluent the owner is likely to be, so that by the time the boat needs to be disposed of it will be owned by the person least likely to be able to afford to have it recycled.

The Boatbreakers' yard in Portsmouth. Credit: Boatbreakers

The Boatbreakers’ yard in Portsmouth. Credit: Boatbreakers

Luke Edney, Communication Manager at Boatbreakers (boatbreakers.com), sums up the problem when he says: ‘Dealing with end-of-life boats in the UK is like a big game of pass the problem. One large marina in Gosport once asked the Boatbreakers team for a price to remove a 30ft catamaran that was definitely end of life. We gave them a price and didn’t hear back. Three months later we got a call from the Langstone Harbour Office telling us that they had a 30ft catamaran abandoned on the beach. It turns out that the marina had sold the boat for a pound online, and then it had been dumped.’

It transpired that someone had bought the boat for £1, stripped it of anything worth selling, and then dumped it on a beach.

With no compulsory ownership registration, it’s impossible to trace the current owner of abandoned boats, and the local council or harbour authority end up having to deal with the problem at a cost to you, the taxpayer.

And, guess what?

Bosham in Chichester Harbour, where oysters have been found to contain microplastics

Bosham in Chichester Harbour, where oysters have been found to contain microplastics. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

It’s not just British beaches where the problem is becoming acute, but countries such as Tahiti have become a dumping ground for boat-owners who want to dispose of old boats without paying for it – to the consternation of local residents, who don’t have the resources to deal with the problem.

For anyone still wedded to the old idea of scuttling old boats to create a habitat for sealife, there’s mounting evidence that wrecks not only damage the seabed but pollute the sea itself by releasing microplastic particles.

And you don’t have to go far to see the effects.

GRP shards have been found in oysters collected in Chichester Harbour – which means those fish you’re eating might well contain particles of that boat someone dumped on a beach nearby.

France leads the way in GRP boat recycling

Governments in countries such as Canada and Sweden have funded several successful one-off schemes to dispose of abandoned boats, but the most effective, long-term solution has been set up in France.

There, the problem was finally taken seriously when sailing was included in the list of items requiring ‘extended producer responsibility’ – along with cars, batteries, electronic equipment and gas cylinders.

That meant that manufacturers had to take responsibility for the long-term environmental impact of their products, including eventual disposal.

In 2019, more than 20 centres were opened around France to offer a free recycling service for boats.

All the owners had to do was to get the boats to the centres, and then the boatbreakers took over.

A cork deck on a yacht

Cork decking and cores are biodegradable, but tough enough for marine use. Credit: Greenboats

The pioneering scheme was set up by the Association for Eco-Responsible Leisure (APER) and funded by a compulsory tax paid by boatbuilders on all new boats.

Crucially, the payments are not linked to any particular boat but go into a central fund which pays for the recycling of all old boats.

The levy in 2021 ranged from €17 for a sailing dinghy under 4m to €363 for a 10m monohull and €10,989 for a multihull of 20-24m.

The aim was to recycle 20,000 to 25,000 boats over five years, but the take-up has been less than expected partly, no doubt, due to the cost of transporting the boats to the centres,
but also because people become sentimentally attached to their old boats and often keep them as retirement projects.

Sailors, it turns out, are a bunch of softies.

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Discussions are ongoing within the rest of Europe about how to fund recycling schemes, with some saying there should be a small annual levy on boat insurance instead.

Despite leaving the EU, the UK is still part of that discussion through the auspices of the European Boat Association, a Europe-wide not-for-profit organisation independent of the EU.

The UK representative is the RYA Environment and Sustainability Manager, Phil Horton.

‘Our preference is for an extended producer responsibility scheme, with a levy on new boats,’ he says.

‘The money should be administered by an independent body and used now to deal with the legacy fleet. But the key issue is to include the cost of transport – then there’s no reason for people not to dispose of their boats properly.’

Dismantling the boats, however, is only the start of the problem.

Once the various parts have been disassembled – which is far more difficult with GRP boats that it is with, say, turbine blades – there’s the thorny question of what to do with it all.

Steve Franklin, founder of Boatbreakers, estimates that fittings account for 30% of the weight of a GRP boat, most of which can be sold as second-hand parts or recycled in the conventional manner.

Yacht turbine blades which are made out of GRP

Turbine blades are another source of GRP waste but are easier than yachts to dismantle. Credit: MHI Vestas Offshore

For the rest, i.e. 70% of the boat, there is no option in the UK apart from sending it to landfill – which is arguably just passing on the problem for future generations to deal with.

The problem is less acute for wood and steel boats, of course, which biodegrade much more quickly.

The story is slightly brighter elsewhere in the world.

Nic Compton

Nic Compton is a marine journalist, writer and former shipwright. He sails a Freedom 33 ketch from the River Dart. Credit: Will Sterling

A system developed by American company Eco-wolf in the 1970s has been used to turn ground-down fibreglass into bathtubs, paving tiles, railway sleepers and even coffins – as well as transom repairs for boats (transomrepair.net).

In Norway, ground GRP is used to make flowerpots and benches.

Other uses are, roughly chopped, making asphalt for road surfacing and, finely ground, mixed with cement to make concrete.

In Germany, where the problem is particularly acute due to the high number of wind turbine blades reaching their end of life, it’s burnt in power plants at very high temperatures to create energy – a surprisingly clean process that results in a pile of ash which is sent to landfill.

All these uses, however, turn a high-value product into a low-value product.

For a real closed-loop solution, the waste should ideally be reused at the same level as it was originally created.

Which is exactly what Italian company Korec has set out to achieve.

They’ve developed a thermochemical system which dissolves the resin and returns the GRP to its constituent parts so that 99% of the glass and 85% of the resin can be reused.

Although only at development stage, the process offers a promising solution which could be applied on a grand scale.

Eco innovations

Looking to the future, there’s increasing pressure on designers to design boats that take into account end of life and can be more easily dismantled for recycling (without of course compromising the strength of the vessel).

And there are several companies developing sustainable materials with which to build the boats from in the first place.

GreenBoats in Germany have produced the Flax 27, an elegant dayboat built of woven flax with a cork core and bonded with Greeepoxidharz, a linseed-based epoxy equivalent (www.green-boats.de).

The Greenboats Flax 29 daysaier

The Flax 27 uses a thicker layup than GRP to achieve the same stiffness, but is still lighted than fibreglass. Credit: Greenboats

Even the sails are biodegradable.

Northern Lights Composites in Spain have produced the first fully recyclable training dinghy, the 8ft Primus, made from thermoplastic which can be separated and reused (www.northernlightcomposites.com).

They also have a very racy-looking 25ft dayboat in the pipeline.

Eco-innovation is even in evidence at the cutting edge of competitive racing, with composite giant Arkema producing a radical Mini 6.50 foiling racer in 2017 followed by a spectacular Multi50 trimaran in 2020, both of which were made from recyclable resin.

The MiniTransat Arkema was built with recyclable fibreglass resin

The MiniTransat Arkema was built with recyclable fibreglass resin. Credit: Frederic Augendre / DPPI

Closer to home, the Ultimate Boat Company in Glasgow have also developed a composite construction product called Danu which is fully recyclable and yet handles like GRP.

They have plans for a top-of-the-range sailing yacht which they hope to start building this year (ultimate-boats.com).

Finally, the answer to the question which has dogged the boating industry for 70 years is starting to emerge – not in one place, but in multiple green shoots which need to be nurtured for a brighter future.

Enjoyed reading What’s the future for derelict GRP boats?

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