What can we do to make yachting more environmentally friendly?

March 12, 2019

(Part 2 – Yacht builders and marine supplies)

With a few exceptions, the environmental impact of boats and yachting is not a popular topic at boat shows where we are being sold the freedom and delights of the yachting lifestyle. However, in today’s blog I write about what we as boat owners can do to demand better solutions from the boat manufacturing and marine supplies industry. Some obvious points come to mind, such as cleaning solutions, paints, fuel, batteries, propulsion systems, and interior and exterior materials used. The biggest issue though is the lack of recycling plans for boats. Awareness about problems and available solutions is key, and as responsible owners we should demand positive actions from the yachting industry. I touch on a few points below.

Exterior – surface maintenance. An easy start with an every-day impact would be to demand products that are more environmentally friendly, with less harmful chemicals, to wash and maintain boats. This includes the cleaning products used on a day-to-day basis for wash downs, but also, for example, the different types of paint used on the outside of the boat, such as the bottom paint.

Photo credit: Soundings Online

Interior. We should ask for the increased use of lighter, more environmentally friendly, sustainable, and renewable materials on the interior of boats. In addition, the lighter the boat is, the more fuel-efficient it will be. One example is the use of bamboo (e.g. in flooring, as a surface laminate, and for fabrics), which grows quickly and is a light and strong material. Other examples include the use of cork, organic and natural textiles, and recycled and repurposed materials.

Photo credit: Susan Blais Costa, Lucky Me Looping

Mechanics and propulsion. One area for improvement is the treatment of waste and waste water. Large yachts come with modern water treatment systems, but they are bulky, heavy and expensive, so this solution has yet to be translated into smaller boats. Another target area is to reduce noise levels, gas emissions, and the amount of soot produced by generators and engines. Other actionable areas include propulsion systems and power sources. More use can be made of alternative (and renewable) energy sources such as solar and wind power, improved batteries, and diesel-electric solutions. There are some fun examples on the market that may be starting a new trend, for example with the emergence of “hybrid” yachts (e.g. Feadship’s Savannah, and in the smaller boats segment the Adler Suprema and Greenline Yachts), sail or solar assisted yachts (such as sail-assisted yacht A, and sailing yacht Black Pearl with solar cells in her sails), and even electric tenders such as Dasher, the sleek electric boat made by Hinckley.

Exterior – construction and recycling. The biggest elephant in “the making yachting more environmentally friendly room” is that of the main construction materials used in many cases. Steel, aluminum and wooden boats can be recycled (are they, though?). But what about all the fiberglass boats on the water? Fiberglass is harmful in many ways. It is harmful in the production process, producing a lot of dust and waste in production, limiting the impact of innovative improvements because of the tooling (such as molds) required, AND fiberglass is not recyclable (at least not in an economically viable way[1]). 

As I was touring an older yacht for sale I started wondering, “Where do boats go to die”? Once boats have been through a refit or two, and possibly sold off ‘cheap’ for someone to enjoy a few more years, eventually boats will also come to the end of their life. What happens to massive amounts of fiberglass boats once nobody wants them anymore? Sadly, the reality is that these boats end up abandoned, sunk, or burnt (in the case of unscrupulous owners), or in marine salvage yards and landfills in the case of responsible owners.

Fiberglass is not biodegradable nor easily recyclable, and boat manufacturers do not appear to have an end-of-life strategy for their products. Nonetheless, we are told that ‘experts are working on solutions’. In the meantime, we as owners can contribute by demanding better solutions, faster. Next time you are at your dealer or broker, or you visit a manufacturer’s display at a boat show, ask them what environmentally friendly solutions they offer, and what solutions they are working on!

Photo credit: Trade Only Today

1 Machines that grind pieces of fiberglass hulls into small glass fibers and powdered resin, which can be sold as an additive to virgin fiberglass in some manufacturing processes or to make pilings, fence posts, manhole covers, boardwalk planks, parking stops and other wood substitutes do exist, but they are very expensive. At the same time the market for recycled fiberglass is very small and fragmented, and the price for recycled fiberglass is too low to justify trying to recycle it. ( )

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