Sailors and environmentalists are sounding the alarm - the recycling of old fiberglass yachts causes serious harm to the environment. Ollie Taylor from Yachting World is doing his own investigation!
Old unanswered questions
According to the latest estimates of environmentalists, old boats made of fiberglass cause much more harm than diesel engines. The problems start with improper disposal and end with environmentally hazardous recycling.
Every year, the total amount of waste from fiberglass and other composites from which boats of all sizes are made is 55,000 tons. The most depressing thing about this situation is that the industry does not seem to be concerned about solving the problem. In the coming years, according to forecasts, the amount of hazardous waste will only increase.
However, all this does not negate the fact that fiberglass is really a fantastic material, a marvel of engineering. It is thanks to him that the modern maritime industry (specifically yachting) is the way we know it today.
Fiberglass appeared in the 1960s and made it possible to really mass-produce boats. In the UK alone, about 10,000 boats of various types are produced per year!
The main problem of fiberglass can be called the complexity of its processing. When it was created, the question of how it could be disposed of was simply not raised. Now fiberglass has become a problem. Engineers have been puzzling over how to process material relatively quickly and safely for years.
Today there are about 5-6 million boats in the European Union. 95% of them are made of fiberglass! Every year, between 60,000 and 120,000 boats break down and end up in the trash at best. By dump, we mean a place from where they can be sent for recycling - in total, only 2000-3000 pieces can be properly disposed of.
The main problems of fiberglass and composites
The main problem of composites, including fiberglass, comes from its main advantage. By themselves, such materials are designed not just for long, but for very long use - they are light, strong, wear-resistant, dielectrics, it is easy to make a case of absolutely any shape from them. Well, of course, you can not go past the price of fiberglass and other composites. They are much cheaper than natural wood.
When a fiberglass yacht is assembled, thermosetting resin is often used to hold many important parts of the hull together. It is necessary in order to give the structure the necessary rigidity. Alas, having once fastened several parts with such resin, it will not work to separate them without problems. This is especially true for composites. As a result, we get a strong, reliable and durable structure - even conditionally eternal - but without the possibility of its processing.
Why are you only thinking about this now? The answer is very simple. The average service life of composite materials in boats is usually between 25 and 100 years (subject to active use). Naturally, we are talking about near ideal conditions, in practice they become unusable an order of magnitude earlier. Now remember that the first "conveyor" fiberglass boats were launched between 1960 and 1970. Using the method of simple arithmetic, we find that today the service life of most of those boats has come to an end.
Basically, it was a ticking time bomb. Among other things, since the 70s, views on ecology and the severity of laws regarding the processing of materials have also changed. Today, fiberglass waste is already banned in a number of European countries. More countries will soon adopt similar initiatives.
Solutions to the problem
In total, there are five options for processing fiberglass. The first is mechanical grinding, everything is clear from the name. Today, this is the method most commonly used, although still not on a large enough scale to handle 55,000 tons of waste. During such grinding, the material goes through several stages of crushing and fragmentation, followed by processing into powder. In this case, the resins are not separated from the materials in any way.
The disadvantage of the method is the low “exhaust”. As a result of grinding, a material is obtained that is problematic to use again. Such "dust" has a very low financial value and is not very popular in the market.
The second processing option is the so-called. combustion using energy recovery. The name may seem complicated, but the essence is quite simple. They take pieces of the hull of a fiberglass boat and burn it. As a result, fiberglass and resin are burned, releasing heat, which is then converted into electricity. Alas, fiberglass does not conduct heat very well, and also requires more energy to burn. And even this is not the main problem - as a result of burning, dangerous bottom (or fly) ash is formed, which is quite difficult to deal with.
The next possible recycling option could be the use of fiberglass for the production of cements. This process is called the co-processing process. During such processing, the hull of the boat can be used both as a source of energy (resin) and as a raw material (fiberglass itself) for the production of cement.
All of the above methods have a serious flaw, but already at the global level - for their full-fledged work, a lot of fuel is needed, followed by the release of hazardous substances into the atmosphere.
Pyrolysis and solvolysis
These two chemical processes are also being considered as alternatives for fiberglass recycling. By and large, this is a double effect on the material (fiberglass in our case) with the help of high temperature (pyrolysis) and chemicals (solvolysis) in the absence of oxygen. Under such exposure, fiberglass decomposes into separate components, which are easier to process separately.
Alas, so far this method of processing has been tested only in laboratory conditions. This initiative is almost in its infancy, which does not yet allow it to be used on an industrial scale. In addition, the cost of applying the technology also becomes a barrier.
But in theory, this is the most suitable option, since the output is a relatively clean fiber that can be reused.
Financial aspect of the issue
All the methods described above face a problem of a purely economic nature. The price of fiberglass from an old boat, which will be recycled, is ultimately an order of magnitude higher than a brand new and freshly synthesized raw fiberglass. Moreover, recycled fiberglass will be inferior in its properties to a new sample just because of the mechanical and chemical effects during processing.
At the moment, this is a common problem not only with fiberglass. Recycled raw materials are less valued, manufacturers prefer new materials, and investments in recycling are also not popular enough. In general, the situation has improved somewhat in recent years.
If even ten years ago, 10 out of 10 investors would have refused to invest in processing, today from 2 to 4 are still ready to take the risk. However, the maritime industry, despite this, is in a vicious circle: there is neither infrastructure nor commercial incentive for processing, but the problem does not disappear anywhere.
The solution that the French found cannot be called complete, but there is progress. so-called. The “APER scheme” is a French legislative initiative that requires French shipyards to pay an “environmental contribution” for every new composite boat sold.
The scheme is as follows - the shipyard pays a fee, the funds from which are then supplemented with taxes on plastic recycling and an operating budget is created, which will later be used for the disposal of old boats.
Thanks to the scheme, in 2022 it was possible to dispose of 2980 old yachts precisely at the expense of money from the environmental contribution. Now the initiative is gaining momentum and the infrastructure is already being created for the annual recycling of even more yachts from 2.5 to 24 meters in length.
As a result, in France, 60% of these boats are sent for incineration with energy recovery. The remaining 40%s are sent to special landfills, where they will wait in line for full processing.
Old fleet, new fleet
The maritime industry has two serious problems: the old and the new fleets. The problem with the old fleet is that the mechanism for its normal processing and full use is not clear. The maritime industry itself is not capable of solving these problems; the help of scientists and related areas is needed.
In the case of the new fleet, the problem is still less relevant. In this case, it is necessary to come up with a so-called. “circular exploitation”, that is, to create such vessels that can not only be recycled, but also reused in new vessels.
But this requires transparency on the part of shipyards - it is necessary to redesign industrial lines, change the approach to production and provide conditions for the recycling of ships.
Hopes for the future
Today, biomaterials offer hope for a solution to the problem. Boats made from such materials can be recycled without much difficulty, and the resulting material can be sent to the production of new boats.
The main biomaterials today are materials of plant origin, such as flax. Linen fiber boats are made using a safer resin that can also be easily recycled.
At the moment, such technologies have the greatest potential in the shipbuilding industry. They will help create truly recyclable boats that will no longer harm the environment.
Among the most interesting projects in the region are the developments of new technology from the German company Greeenboats. Already now it produces its parts for boats from flax fibers. The main feature of each part is that a special NFC chip is embedded in them, which allows you to simply bring the phone up and find out the exact composition of the bulkhead, door or any other panel. In addition, the chip will store information about how exactly it will be best to recycle the part.
It is impossible to say exactly what to expect. Such assumptions go into the plane of forecasts, and forecasts are a thankless task. Only one thing can be stated with certainty - if in the near future the industry and scientists do not find an effective way to dispose of composites, then at some point we will face a critical mass of ownerless and unrecycled material that harms the already deteriorating ecology of the planet.
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