Sustainable Solutions for Fiberglass Boats

Imagine all the power boats and sailing vessels that dot Rhode Island waters, especially in the heat of the summer, ending up in a landfill.

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Newport Harbor, R.I.

Today, about 16 percent of all Rhode Island households own a registered recreational vessel. And while modern-day fiberglass hulls provide owners with durable reliability and unbridled safety, they also last about 40 years – far beyond the time horizon that many owners plan to use their boats. The tumultuous second-hand boat market, coupled with an ongoing trend of vessel abandonment, are products of the long-term, and often unanticipated, resilience of fiberglass in the marine environment.

In Rhode Island, the only legal form of vessel disposal is a pathway to the state’s Central Landfill. Not only is the practice an environmentally unfriendly waste of valuable composite materials, it will soon no longer be an option as the Central Landfill in Johnston nears its closing date in the next 20 years. Fortunately, a sustainable solution for the disposal Rhode Island’s end-of-life boats may be on the horizon.

“We’d like to help design a system that incorporates best practices for the responsible re-use of a significant source of solid waste,” says Dennis Nixon, director of Rhode Island Sea Grant, who has been visiting local communities and marine businesses to better understand this emerging issue and what role Sea Grant may play in finding a solution. “The small size of Rhode Island makes us the perfect test site for a potential national solution.”

The recycling of fiberglass boats had long remained a hypothetical topic of discussion for manufacturers and vessel owners, but it has now become a reality in Europe, which may offer solutions stateside. Using a variety of industrial processes, almost 10,000 hulls have been processed and recycled as part of several national and multinational marine industry programs. Thanks in part to strong waste management regulations, boaters in France, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands can now choose to divert their fiberglass vessels from traditional disposal and opt for safe, sustainable reuse of their craft’s material – specifically, in the production of cement.

The major chemical components of the glass fibers and resins used to create fiberglass are also some of most valuable raw materials required for the kiln-firing of cement (Read more). The benefits of the process extend beyond materials to the energy required for the production. When fiberglass resins are heated to a gas in the kiln, their concentrations can be utilized to propel internal electric turbines, thus powering the process. While the American cement industry has experimented extensively with alternative and recycled industrial products, such as car tires, fiberglass remains a relatively untapped waste resource.

So far, little has been done to establish a platform for U.S. fiberglass vessel recycling. Until greater efforts are made for sustainable disposal, the costs of the associated problems will continue to fall on Rhode Island communities, their resources and the local maritime manufacturing industry itself. Initial investment in the future of fiberglass recycling will not be an easy task. A successful state recycling program will certainly require the support of local and state governments, as well as the marine trades industry.

In the process of moving forward, creating a wider public discourse between boat owners, manufacturers, and government entities can create greater awareness of the nature of the growing issue, as well as possible solutions.

By Evan Ridley, Graduate student in Marine Affairs at the University of Rhode Island, who is looking at recycling fiberglass boats as part of his graduate thesis.