We’ve all seen the photos: mangled, battered boats that hurricanes have tossed into piles that look like a heinous game of pickup sticks played between Mother Nature and the God of War. It’s a scene that repeats with every major hurricane, a sight that, from up close or afar, leaves boat owners wondering what will become of their beloved rides.
What happens next isn’t pretty, either. At BoatU.S., they describe it with a single word: dumpsterize.
“The vast majority of boats get stripped and then go to the dump and get crushed,” says Grant Beach, who supervises field inspections for BoatU.S. “It could be a sophisticated effort, or it could be taking a chainsaw to it, or it could be driving over it a couple of times.”
It’s all but impossible for most owners to imagine their fiberglass boat the victim of a saw, especially when it’s been hosed down and buffed with a chamois after countless cruises. The thought of a wrecking ball smashing into the swim platform where a child learned to dive can be as horrifying as the notion of a fire burning family photo albums to ash.
But for some unlucky boaters, that nightmare could become a reality yet again. This year’s hurricane season starts in just a few months, on June 1. Early predictions from Colorado State University are for a 30 percent chance of three to five hurricanes, including one or two that grow into storms considered major, ranking as at least a Category 3 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.
Only a little more than half of American boat owners have an insurance policy that covers even a portion of damage, according to BoatU.S., so after this season’s hurricanes hit, what’s known as the end-of-life process for yet more boats will begin.
For insured boats, that process starts with an assessment about whether the cost of a boat’s repairs will exceed the cost of the insurance policy. Boats that will cost too much to repair, or that can’t be repaired, generally get salvaged, auctioned, picked over for parts and then junked at a dump. In some cases, including with BoatU.S., owners get the right of first refusal on salvaging what’s left of the boat. If an owner doesn’t want the boat back—but it has some perceived value—then an insurer will work with a national liquidator.
Liquidators put smaller boats on trailers, take them to a central location and put them up on stands, just like at a refit and repair yard. Larger boats get set up in a place near their location. Once ownership documents are transferred to the liquidator, the boats get put online for review and sold to the highest bidder.
There can be value in wrecked boats. Maybe the hull is trashed, but the outboards are in good enough shape to be refurbished and resold. Helm electronics may still work. Stainless-steel fittings, carbon-fiber hardtops, winches, swim ladders, center-console leaning posts—all of those things can have secondhand value, especially for popular boat models. “You see a lot of things happen with those auctions, whether the boats get donated and an organization takes a tax credit or some salvager picks them up at wholesale and tries to make a profit by taking out an engine,” says Evan Ridley, project manager for the Rhode Island Fiberglass Vessel Recycling Pilot Project.
The one component that has no value, though, is the composite hull itself. That’s what usually ends up being chopped into chunks and taken to a landfill, to be battered into smithereens. “The guys get excited having fun, tossing an old hull around and smashing it into a million pieces,” Ridley says, “but it’s really a problem.”
America’s landfills are filling up and end-of-life fiberglass boats are a concern. Even beyond the wreckage that comes with annual storms, fiberglass boats are believed to have an average lifespan around 40 years. It was in the 1950s that serious production of fiberglass boats began on a commercial scale, which means that right now, the first generation of fiberglass boats are ending their time afloat—with decades’ more composite hulls already built that will need disposal in the future.
That concern is why the Rhode Island Fiberglass Vessel Recycling Pilot Project exists. Rhode Island has only one central landfill, Ridley says. It can’t keep taking in chopped up fiberglass boats. Financial support from the federal government’s National Sea Grant effort, as well as from 11th Hour Racing, is allowing the pilot program to look for other solutions, with the hope of solving post-storm pileups as well as the larger issue with landfill surge.
“We found something going on in the European Union since about 2008,” Ridley says. “Their parliament sent out a directive to member states saying, ‘We want you to refrain from landfilling composite materials. Invest in infrastructure that can make these materials useful.’”
German researchers responding to that directive, he says, figured out that the cement industry could offer a solution. Cement is made in huge kilns. Materials such as sand and limestone get dropped into one end of the kiln, and the dry cement mix that goes into bags comes out the other side. “Because that kiln is rotating and using a ton of energy to create heat, when you add fiberglass to that process, it actually helps the kiln stay hot and burn less natural gas or coal ash or whatever traditional fuel source they might be using,” Ridley says. “On top of that, they found that the fiberglass actually reflected some characteristics of the raw materials themselves, things like the sand. You can add it into the production process to offset some of the raw materials. You can cut back on raw materials, too. That was the aha moment for us,” he adds. “Somebody’s doing something with fiberglass that’s helping to offset the carbon footprint of an energy-intensive industry.”
The Rhode Island pilot program has since been working with various groups and businesses to figure out how to apply Germany’s discovery in the U.S. The idea is to create a pathway that takes boats away from the salvage-auction-landfill route, to offer owners of wrecked boats another option. The trick is to figure out how to take a fiberglass boat hull, get it properly prepped for a cement company’s use—much like separating out recyclables in a home kitchen, but on a more complicated scale—and then making it available in large enough quantities that companies can rely on it as a regular raw-material source. “We think that all the players, expertise and resources are there,” Ridley says. “It’s just a matter of making some connections.”
Sometime this year, the pilot program expects to be able to show how much it will cost the owner of, say, a 30-foot composite sailboat to get it prepped for the recycling process after a major hurricane. Boat owners will then be able to compare those costs with what it will take to get the boat into a landfill and then decide the best route for their storm-destroyed hulls.
“We’re really excited that boats could be acting as a foot in the door for a whole spectrum of fiberglass and composite products going to landfills,” Ridley says. “Think of shower stalls and hot tubs and all kinds of things that don’t have a recycling outlet at this point. Boating could lead the way toward helping all kinds of industries.”