At Your Disposal

Lead Line
— June 2001
By Richard Thiel

At Your Disposal
How do you get rid of a fiberglass boat?
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It's a question that has dogged mankind for ages--or at least that portion of mankind that goes boating. I'll bet you've wondered about it, too. What happens to old fiberglass boats? We all know that FRP has a half-life exceeded only by that of Strom Thurmond, and with the exception of osmotic blisters, it's impervious to the onslaughts of water and sun. Like old soldiers, fiberglass boats never die, but neither do they just fade away. So where do they go?

It's possible, I suppose, that all the boats built since fiberglass was discovered as the ideal boatbuilding material are still around, just handed down like used clothing or used cars. The problem is that while boats and clothing can look threadbare in their nether years, boats don't cease to be functional. (Yes, their engines do, but those are relatively easy to replace.) Unlike cars, boats are not usually rendered obsolete by new technology. The main reason people buy new boats is--well, because they're new. Everything smells, feels, and looks nice, and a buyer can be fairly certain that they'll be trouble-free. Old boats lack these allures, but there's always someone around who's willing to accept their deficiencies as long as they don't leak excessively and the price is low enough.

Still, a lot of boats are abandoned each year for a variety of reasons, including becoming too expensive to maintain or fix and impossible to sell. As we have all witnessed, common solutions include leaving them at moorings or anchor, casting them adrift, or beaching them. Unfortunately, most states lack the resources or legal authority to track the owners down and make them properly dispose of the boats.

But what is "properly"? Most environmental laws prohibit burning of fiberglass, and few landfills are likely to welcome a 28-footer. Theoretically you could cut a boat into acceptably sized pieces, but notwithstanding the labor involved, you'd have to worry about all that hazardous dust you'd produce. So how do you get rid of a fiberglass boat?

There are a few answers coming out of Europe. In the Netherlands a private contractor dismembers old boats using environmentally acceptable methods, then sends the pieces to landfills. In Germany they're experimenting with grinding up fiberglass, then mixing it with resin, and using the resulting mixture as filler. (A few American boatbuilders use this process to create material to fill voids behind strakes and chines and inside keels.) But the labor involved makes this process problematic. Other strategies include shipping old hulls to Eastern Europe in the hopes that they will spawn new boaters and charging buyers a tax dedicated to paying for fiberglass disposal. Here in the States a similar strategy is already being used by many states to pay for the cost of disposing of batteries and tires.

But the Brits have come up with the most ingenious proposal. British Waterways, a governmental entity charged with managing the country's lakes, rivers, and coastal waters, is studying something called Network Q. The idea is to refurbish old fiberglass vessels, then sell them at an attractive price to new boaters. The agency would guarantee to buy back the boats within a year at a predetermined price, so the buyer could either move up to a bigger boat if he or she likes the sport or get out without losing a lot of money.

No one's talking much about the problem on this side of the pond, but maybe they should. After all, if we can't find a way to dispose of old boats, the waterways could soon get even more cluttered.

This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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