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  • Writer's pictureNed Patton

Boats, Composites and a Circular Economy - YES

This week I get to write about two things that I am passionate about – boats and sustainability in the composites business. 

Interestingly enough, once I started looking into this, there are actually efforts ongoing and being developed to enable the recycling / reuse of the fiberglass and other composite hulls for your typical pleasure boat.  And there is also a move toward new boats being intentionally made with an eye to circularity of the materials that make them up (see the lead pic in this post).  These hulls are made using natural fibers and resin systems that have been formulated to make them easy to take apart at end of life. 

There are a few companies that have sprouted up (so to speak) that are focusing on bio-based composites and they are targeting the boat building industry to start with.  There is an article from 2020 in Professional Boatbuilder magazine titled “The Quest for Eco Composites” ( that describes these efforts and one of the companies that are making a go of it.  The first completely renewable, recyclable, and reusable hull they built was a 60’ open water sailing yacht that they intended to sail around the world to demonstrate that this idea can become reality. 

That is one of the good news stories.  So, what’s the problem that we are facing today?  In an article in Yachting Monthly ( there is an estimate that there are on the order of six million pleasure boats still in use in the EU alone.  And, since fiberglass has been the hull material of choice for boats ever since the late 1950’s, a large number of the boats that have existed are either derelict or have been broken up and sent to a landfill.  A rather disturbing picture of this is below, from an article in “The Conversation” ( shows the extent of the problem. 

There are numerous examples of this in many boating publications and environmental publications as well.  Unfortunately, fiberglass – being a composite material – is inherently difficult to take back apart at the end of its useful life and reuse any of the fibers or resins effectively to make anything new at all.  The article from Yachting Monthly states that of those six million pleasure craft in the EU, some 60,000 to 120,000 of them reach the end of their useful life every year.  Of these, only about 2000 are recycled, and some 6,000 to 9,000 are abandoned like the boats in the picture above.  The rest are either kept limping along by their owners only to become either derelict or broken up and landfilled at some later date.  Of those 6,000 to 9,000 per year that are abandoned, they are usually abandoned in the water near the coastline and are degrading and releasing microplastics and glass micro-fibers that are wreaking havoc on shallow water mollusk and other intertidal plants and animals.  In other words, they are polluting our oceans.

Now that we know the problem, what is being done about this – especially in the new boat building industry.  This is another area where the EU is somewhat ahead of what we are doing here in the US.  In fact, leadership in the EU in Belgium met recently to talk about how to reach a circular economy for the pleasure boat industry as a whole (  They of course cite the statistic of six million pleasure craft that exist and are in use on European waters today.  And they also cite some of the other statistics about number of boats reaching end of life each year, recycling rates, and the number of boats that become derelict each year.  This meeting brought together experts from all over the EU to discover what is being done and to develop a plan for how the EU member countries were each going to address this issue – through regulation or education, or tax incentives – and also looked into each country that had a plan that they were implementing. 

France has a regulation in place called the Anti-Waste for a Circular Economy Act (AGEC using the original French) that laid out specific requirements for the maritime industry.  One of the major implications of this Act is what is called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) which holds the boat builder responsible for making their products recyclable at the end of their useful life. Finland has also taken concrete steps toward solving this problem, and both countries are part of a Europe-wide effort to develop sustainable composite fabrication for boats and wind turbine blades as well as responsible recycling techniques for end of life composites. 

In the United States there are developments ongoing in the boat building industry to reformulate resins so that they are easier to take apart at end of life, and lower the carbon footprint of the industry at large by using natural fibers and plant-based resins for hull construction.  There is an overall sense, at least in quite a few companies that are involved in this industry that the boating public here in the US is becoming more aware of the issues with rotting pleasure craft being abandoned in our lakes and streams, and even on our beaches.  Most states have registrations required for pleasure boats and titles to those boats that make it somewhat easier to track down owners of abandoned or derelict boats, but unfortunately enforcement of the existing laws on the books intended to prevent this is often lacking for a number of reasons, primarily the lack of funding and personnel for enforcement.

What about the future?  This is actually a fairly good news story.  Even publications like Composites World, Yachting World, Sailing, and a number of others, are featuring articles about this problem and about the solutions that are coming.  A very recent article from Composites World talks about the European boating industry and their quest to build recyclable composite boats ( – see pic). 

And in the US, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) is developing a fiberglass boat recycling program to begin to address this problem here in the States.  One of the projects that was initiated in 2020 was with the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association Foundation ( which was the expansion of a pilot program focused on deployment of the initial pilot program that developed a means of recycling end of life fiberglass boats.  Their solution was much like end of life carbon composites in which they burned the chopped up fiberglass in cement kilns to use as process heat while recovering quite a bit of the nearly pure silica from the glass fibers to use as a strength additive in concrete.  This was an effort to at least get something out of the used up fiberglass rather than just burying it in a landfill or leaving the derelict boats to rot and pollute lakes, streams, and beaches. 

While none of these efforts, either in Europe or in the US have reached even a carbon neutral or completely circular economy, there is at least an awareness and investments are being made both by Governments and companies in the business to make their products truly fit within a circular economy.

That’s about it for this week.  I hope everyone that reads these posts enjoys them as much as I enjoy writing them.  As usual I will post this first on my website – – as well as on LinkedIn.  And if anyone wants to provide comments to this, I welcome them with open arms.  Comments, criticisms, etc. are all quite welcome.  I really do want to engage in a conversation with all of you about composites because we can learn so much from each other as long as we share our own perspectives. 

I also wanted to remind everyone that I will be speaking at the SAMPE conference in Long Beach in May.  I’m going to be talking about the subject that I have a passion for – composites sustainability.  Maybe I can help the industry a bit again, maybe even rattle a few cages like what happened at the Carbon Fiber Conference in Salt Lake.  One can only hope.  Anyway, for anyone that is interested in materials and process engineering, SAMPE will be a great conference.  And they will have a really great exhibit as well. 

And, finally, I still need to plug my book, so here’s the plug.  The book pretty much covers the watershed in composites, starting with a brief history of composites, then introducing the Periodic Table and why Carbon is such an important and interesting element.  The book was published and made available last August, and is available both on Amazon and from McFarland Books – my publisher.  However, the best place to get one is to go to my website and buy one.  I will send you a signed copy for the same price you would get charged on Amazon, except that I charge $8 shipping.  Anyway, here’s the link to get your signed copy:  And as usual, here’s a picture of the book, for those of you just tuning in. 

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Mar 26
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Very interesting information. I had no idea the amount of boats that are not being recycled and the numbers that go abandoned.👀

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