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Shameful situation of UK’s ‘end of life’ boat policy

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Shameful situation of UK’s ‘end of life’ boat policy

More than ever we are becoming aware of the condition of the world and what humans have done to the environment. The upside of this is that we are constantly bringing in new ideas to help us become ‘greener’. 

But one situation we may not all be aware of is the UK’s ‘end of life’ boat policy, which is a growing concern as Fibre-Reinforced Plastic boats can be found across the globe, with no plan or procedure for effectively recycling the FRP hull material.

The following article is based on the informative 3 part series found on Marine Industry News by recycling expert Luke Edney. The full articles can be found here: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3.

The disposal of Fibre-Reinforced Plastic boats seems to be an issue that, for a long time, the marine industry has been well aware of but is reluctant to give any thought or planning to. However, a recent shift in public opinions on marine plastic waste and recycling has started to change that.

The problem has recently caught the attention of the United Nations. The UN commissioned research company AQASS Ltd to write a report on the issue as Tahiti was being inundated with boats that people were dumping on the South Pacific island, which they had little infrastructure to deal with. Report author, Dr Simon Bray (a marine ecologist with a background in pollution studies and environmental management) realised when unravelling the issues that this was a problem the whole world was struggling to sort.

Sadly, in the United Kingdom, only Boatbreakers, who are based in Portsmouth Harbour are dedicated to boat disposal and recycling. Luke Edney met with Simon from AQASS Ltd to discuss his report and they all came to the same conclusion: of all the developed nations, the UK is lagging behind the rest.

Potential solutions have been developed by other countries, including just some of the below:

Norway - Companies are experimenting with grinding FRP down and using it to make flowerpots, benches and other items.

Canada – Has funded a scheme that is effectively combing the coastline looking for wrecks and abandoned boats and then disposing of them.

US – There is a funded project to break boats down and use the waste FRP material in the cement industry. RIMTA is a company based in Rhode Island and featured on the METSTRADE sustainability panel in 2019.

All of the ideas being worked on in other countries put what’s being done in the UK to shame. Currently reliance is on the honesty of the last owner of the boat to pay to scrap the boat, which after being stripped, ends up in a landfill.

As a country and marine industry, we need to learn from our global neighbours and start finding greener solutions.

Growing threat from boats past ‘sail by date’

One thing we drastically need is to reduce costs for dealing with boats at the end of their life, before it is too late. The disposal process has two main costs, waste disposal for the hull material and the transport cost, that Boatbreakers are actively trying to reduce. 

Transport costs 

Currently, for boats from across the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe to be disposed of, the vessel have to get back to the Boatbreakers base in Portsmouth, which costs money - whether the boat is brand new or coming to the end of its life. 

This cost is passed on to the last owner. However, it is recognised that if there was a network of breakers yards the cost could then be reduced and boats collected for a lot less, which means owners may be more inclined to pay for responsible disposal.

Waste disposal

The trickier problem to solve is the cost of waste disposal as there is currently no market for second-hand fibreglass. Even if people did try and melt down Fibre-Reinforced Plastic boats (FRP) to re-use, with new rolls of it being so cheap why would the industry choose the old?

Boatbreakers try and support, or at least talk to anyone who has ideas on recycling FRP from old boats. 

People often say that sinking a boat to become an artificial reef is a viable solution. However, in the UN’s report by AQASS it’s made clear that sunken boats are still affected by tides and can become destructive to the ecosystem.

With the possible solutions for the waste FRP beginning to develop, and if our network continues to grow in the UK, transport costs will drop dramatically. The cost of boat disposal in the UK could be in the hundreds of pounds instead of thousands, leading to less abandonment of vessels and less of an eyesore across the UK.

The marine industry’s sloping shoulders for end of life boats

As the end of life disposal process is costly more and more boats are dumped, but developments in ideas for recycling of end-of-life boats are beginning to gather pace. The biggest issue that would be a real game changer for boat disposal would be to find a greener solution for Fibre Reinforced Plastic (FRP) hulls.

But while there are different solutions suggested, Boatbreakers think it’s important that a common plan is adopted. If the rules in differ across the globe, chances are that countries with more lenient rules will end up as dumping grounds – based on what was happening in Tahiti.

And we already see this happening on a smaller scale in the UK. Some unscrupulous boat owners have noticed that if they dump their boats on Eastney beach in Portsmouth, either the Harbour Board or Council end up scrapping them – usually at the taxpayers’ expense!

Marinas also need to take some responsibility in dealing with the problem. They are happy to take thousands of pounds of mooring fees each year from boat owners, so passing on the scrap cost to a harbour board or council is unacceptable.

So, who will take the lead nationally, and internationally?

British Marine states in its National Agenda 2020 that one of its 2019-20 objectives is to ‘create a new environment roadmap bringing up-to-date structure to its approach on key issues such as air quality, pollution control and end of life vessels’.

Additionally, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs have offered the following statement.

“Defra is committed to tackling plastic pollution, preventing waste, driving up recycling rates and cutting down landfill so we leave the environment in a better state than we found it,” a Defra spokesperson says.

“We know certain types of waste, including fibre-reinforced plastic boats, are difficult to dispose of, and we welcome ongoing work by industry to solve this problem. We’re also engaging on work on this issue through the International Maritime Organization.” 

We hope that this article was eye-opening and raised the necessary awareness, with thanks once again to Marine Industry News, Luke Edney and Boatbreakers. 


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