A pilot program in Rhode Island recycles fiberglass from old boats and turns it into cement.

Buried Alive

Those bags of cement you buy at Home Depot?
They might soon be made from recycled boats.

The end of a boat’s life is usually a quiet, nondescript affair. There’s no ceremonial goodbye, no reveling in those last few diesel fumes. It’s simply part of your life one moment and gone the next.

At least, that’s how it feels. But the boat isn’t just—poof—gone. It’s in a landfill somewhere across town or at the bottom of a river where it might never decompose. That’s right—never.

The Rhode Island Marine Trades Association (RIMTA) estimates that between 2011 and 2015, 1.5 million boats reached “end of life” status in the U.S. With such limited national infrastructure in place for responsibly disposing of boat components, Dennis Nixon and Evan Ridley of the Rhode Island Sea Grant Program—which supports research that benefits coastal communities—started looking for a solution. “People have been talking about what to do with end of life boats for longer than I’ve been alive,” says Ridley.

Large fiberglass chunks are crushed into smaller pieces by industrial shredders that will be fed into a cement kiln.

Large fiberglass chunks are crushed into smaller pieces by industrial shredders that will be fed into a cement kiln.

He turned to a surprising source for inspiration: wind turbines. That’s because wind turbine blades have a composition similar to boats: fiberglass with a polymer-based resin. One company in the E.U., Geocycle, had already figured out how to recycle the blades for use in the cement industry. The resin component of the composite creates heat energy that allows the cement facility to reduce its fossil fuel consumption. And processing the fiberglass component yields a material that mimics many of the raw ingredients in cement: sand, aluminum and calcium carbonate. This material is then used to make cement, thus reducing the cement plant’s -reliance on raw materials.

One of the dark sides of recycling is that many products, like plastics, get downcycled, which means the end result can come back even more environmentally insidious. A milk jug might come back to life as a plastic grocery bag, but the opposite is virtually impossible. The beauty of fiberglass recycling is that the cement it creates is just as high quality as the regular stuff, according to the European Composites Industry Association.

02-RIFVR4

This spring, Ridley managed a pilot program called the Rhode Island Fiberglass Vessel Recycling Project—partially funded by a Boat U.S. grant—that sourced 15 end of life fiberglass boats amounting to 20 tons of material. Fiberglass might only be 50 percent of a boat’s construction; the metal and wiring are stripped at the boatyard and sold on the established metal market. The boats are pre-crushed to chunks a few feet square, and then sent to a waste management partner who grinds them up smaller in preparation for shipment to a South Carolina branch of Geocycle, where it’s used for fuel and raw material.

Ridley is optimistic about the program, but says making it financially sustainable could be a challenge. “We want to demonstrate the kinds of partnerships that would be necessary to create a statewide network for boat recycling,” he says. The feedback from the pilot will be instrumental in determining the long-term viability of the project. It’s not a panacea, but it’s a step, and Ridley says it could open the door for recycling other fiberglass products.

That’s one way to give your boat a proper funeral.

This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

Related