End of use boats - progress on composite recycling
Construction and material Sustainability

Progress update: Recycling composites of end-of-life boats

Peter Franklin
Wednesday, 25 August 2021

I’m just back from my summer break, and pleased that my first blog can focus on a topic that I have been passionate about for quite a long time. Every year since 2015, METSTRADE has been a platform for raising awareness about the end-of-life (or end-of-use) boats challenge. Also, many articles about the subject have been written over the years. So, I think it’s safe to say that the awareness aspect is largely taken care of now.

Most people in the leisure marine industry are aware, that the growing number of composite boats reaching ‘end-of-use’ every year has a negative impact on the environment. It also threatens the future sustainability of the boating industry; unless we can find ways to deconstruct and ‘commercialise’ the resulting waste stream, in much the same way as the automotive industry has done so successfully.

So, with all this in mind, I was keen to log on to a very topical webinar produced as part of the IBEX 365 program in the USA and organised in partnership with The Rhode Island Marine Trade Association (RIMTA). The panel discussion was entitled: ‘Recreational Boats and Building the Composite Recycling Supply Chain.’

Building the composite recycling supply chain

The panelists looked into new advances for composite recycling solutions and considered the possibility of developing a national composites recycling, or ‘beneficial reuse’ supply chain in the States. The ambition is to have an established commercial infrastructure that can work proactively across multiple sectors in order to support collective environmental goals. For instance, the wind energy industry also has an exponentially growing end-of-life waste stream, this is made up very large composite wind turbine blades. Many of these have been sent to landfill in the past, in the same way as boat hulls have been ‘disposed of.’

The panel was moderated by Evan Ridley Director of Environmental Programs at RIMTA. Evan has been a regular contributor to our Sustainability panel discussions at METSTRADE in the past, and a valued collaborator for swapping and updating information on the subject between Europe and the USA.

The globally growing legacy fleet

As part of his introduction, Evan mentioned that recreational boating has been acknowledged as the No. 1 way for people to engage with the environment in their free time. He suggested that there must be some empathy amongst these boaters, for minimising the impact of their hobby on the future sustainability of the planet.

This passion for water sports has become even more prevalent during the pandemic, meaning that new boat sales have boomed as a result, the majority of which are of GRP composite construction. So now more than ever, the leisure marine industry must develop credible, economically viable end-of-life solutions, or we will face an even larger and uglier legacy fleet problem in 30 or 40 years!

'Boomer boats'

A glance at the data on current legacy fleet status in the USA brings this scenario into sharp focus. According to statistics from NMMA (National Marine Manufacturers Association) approximately 3 million GRP boats were retired between 2003 and 2019. They estimate that around 2% of the national fleet will reach end-of-life during every year into the future. Due to the significant global increase in recreational boat manufacturing in the 80’s and 90’s, this percentage will represent even higher numbers, as more and more of these ‘boomer boats’ will reach the end-of-life over the next few decades.

Beneficial re-use of composites is the key

The first speaker on the panel was Dan Coughlin, Vice President of Composites Market Development at ACMA (American Composites Manufacturers Association.) ACMA is the voice of the composite industry in the US and is actively engaged in working with the marine associations, and other industries, in finding viable solutions for the composite waste problems.

Dan re-emphasised that various allied sectors of the industrial economy share the same challenges, and even higher volumes of waste composites than the boating industry does. Therefore, creating a beneficial and economically competitive market for reused (remanufactured) composites is the ultimate solution for turning this ever-growing mountain of waste, into a more environmentally acceptable form of circularity. The estimated volume of raw materials currently available to feed into this process is quite staggering: 816,000 metric tons in USA, and 2,902,000 tons globally!

Composite remanufacturing

Towards this end, ACMA and the University of West Virginia are collaborating in a joint venture composite remanufacturing project. In simple terms, they take a piece of redundant fibreglass composite, pre-condition it in a light solvolysis solution, and then put it through a composite re-infusion process. This results in a new composite which can be sold as a multi-purpose construction sheet material.

Ultimately, they plan to complete the test bed in West Virginia, and then seek to establish a network of composite recycle / remanufacture centres around the country.

Recycled PET plastic bottles for structural core elements

The next speaker was John Bayless, Director of Strategic Programs at Brunswick Corporation. As most people know, Brunswick is one of the world’s leading boat builders and engine manufacturers, with revenues exceeding US$4 billion, and brands such as Mercury, Bayliner, Searay and Boston Whaler in their portfolio.

John spent some time elaborating on the company’s 2020 Sustainability Report, mentioning examples such as, switching to recycled PET plastic bottles for structural core elements instead of using 7000 balsa trees every year. He also committed to working with others who manufacture from composites, in order to create an industry wide solution for the growing end-of-life waste stream from boating.

Finding solutions in cement production

The third and final speaker was Chris Howell, Senior Director of Operations at Veolia North America. He opened by saying, “Veolia is possibly the largest company you have never heard of! It’s been established 160 years, has 168,000 employees, and operates globally with headquarters in Paris”. 

Veolia is a company with activities in water management, waste management and energy services. One of their major projects is partnering with the rapidly growing renewable energy industry, helping to find environmentally acceptable solutions for waste streams from redundant wind and solar farms. They also collaborate with large B to C producers such as Danone, Unilever and Tetra Pak, finding ways to keep plastic out of the oceans.

Chris agreed with previous speakers that circularity and reuse is the ‘name of the game’ wherever possible, and that landfill must be the last resort, and least favoured option.

Reducing CO2 emission

Referring again to the wind industry where waste streams are growing due to upgraded technology and demand for more clean energy, Chris gave details of a working partnership that Veolia have established with G E Renewables.

In this, they have successfully used old composite wind turbine blades to replace other materials in the cement production process. Cement is the highest volume construction commodity on the planet and produces huge amounts of CO2 in the process. According to Veolia, by feeding such ‘biogenic / carbon neutral’ composites into the cement kiln at high temperatures, they have enabled a 27% reduction in CO2 emissions measured against previously used raw materials. GRP also contains calcium and silica, which are both elements required in the cement production process.

Whilst this is not a fully circular solution for boat hulls, it certainly presents a practical and economically viable solution for re-use of the waste GRP material, into a high-volume industrial process with a large global market demand.

As Evan Ridley described during last year’s METSTRADE Connect virtual panel discussion on end-of-life boats, the same principle has been successfully trialed by RIMTA on the east coast of the States in 2020, with 18 tons of broken up GRP boat material being disposed of via the cement co-processing route.

Working with other marine associations and industry players across the US, together with organizations’ like ACMA and Veolia, Evan and his colleagues are optimistic that the future is finally looking brighter for dealing with the end-of-life boats problem; one that has hung over our industry for far too many decades.