Microscopic analysis of oysters, mussels and sediment from Chichester Harbour has uncovered a dizzying number of glass fibres linked back to boatyards and derelict vessels.
The ‘really worrying’ findings by University of Brighton researchers who undertook studies off the coast of Hampshire and West Sussex have worldwide implications, yet there is no practical solution for recycling fibreglass boats in sight, with a boom in boating, plus increasing numbers of early glass reinforced plastic (GRP) vessels reaching end of life.
Dr Corina Ciocan, Principal Lecturer in Marine Biology at the School of Applied Sciences at the University of Brighton, told PBO it took a lot of detective work to discover exactly what they had found.
Embedded in oysters and other aquatic life, the shards were found as part of an initial study focused on microplastics, and are 10 times thinner than human hair.
She said: “We were looking at contamination of plastic in the water, in the sediment and in the oysters. In the oysters we found many, many strands we couldn’t explain, no one had reported it before.
“The oysters had been collected from in front of a boatyard, and we found ‘e-type glass’ which is mostly used in composite materials. The dimension of the strands corresponded to tiny fragments that usually relate to cutting reinforced glass plastic material in boatyards.
“It was like uncovering the tip of the iceberg, because nobody had published anything like this before – we were opening Pandora’s Box.”
It is believed that the fibreglass is causing ‘asbestos-like’ damage to organisms such as oysters and mussels.
Dr Ciocan said: “The work done in boatyards and the degradation of old boats have a massive impact on aquatic mammals, water fleas and mussels.”
Marine biologist Dr Ciocan’s expertise is in functional ecotoxicology, focusing on biological responses of marine organisms to environmental stressors.
“My opinion, which is backed by my esteemed chemist colleagues, is that it has the attributes of asbestos – that upon entering the organism, it severs the flesh and becomes embedded. The organism develops inflammation, tumours and cancers.
“Boat abandonment and a lack of legislation for end-of-life boats and the lack of a recycling solution are all attributed – there is no environmentally friendly way of disposing of it.”
The specialist team of University of Brighton researchers started their collaboration with Chichester Harbour Conservancy four years ago, prompted by concerns about microplastic pollution in the harbour.
Dr Ciocan said: “They wanted to know ‘What are the levels and where do they come from’ – sewage effluent or the tide?
“One of the particular concerns was related to the native oyster and pollution in the harbour, which was a very successful oyster fishery for centuries, able to support about 40 fishing boats until 2018 when the fishery was closed by the Sussex Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority due to the low number of oysters.”
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Following the success of the Chichester Harbour Microplastics Symposium, further studies are now looking at two components from fibreglass:
The plastic component “which is nasty in itself and has a huge impact on the reproduction in animals and humans and adds to the microplastic problem in general”. Glassfibre is heavier in water, drops straight into sediment and is accessible to all organisms inhabiting the sediment.
Dr Ciocan said: “Our next study will look at crabs, lobsters and worms. The main concern is worms keep the sediment alive and make saltmarshes grow, without worms it’s pure mud that will wash away in waves and currents. In Chichester 2.5 hectares of saltmarshes are lost every year, fibreglass might be contributing massively to this – saltmarshes are natural flood defences.
Dr Ciocan added: “Fibreglass does not degrade, we have boatyards that have been in place for decades across the world, creating this massive contamination of tiny shards of fibreglass. And where dredging occurs and the sediment is dumped out at sea, it moves the problem there too.
“We’ve had a call for collaboration with our colleagues at the University of Portsmouth, who have been approached by lobster fishermen who have observed higher mortality rates in lobsters. After a catch, they die within 10 minutes, which is clearly a respiratory problem.
“People are getting worried that this contaminant is here to stay as we don’t have a solution for this. It’s worrying really, the boating industry is having a boom, everybody who can afford to is really keen to go out on the water, there is so much technology, so many gizmos put on a boat, the actual composite material is getting thinner and thinner.
“There’s a high turnover of boats on the water.”
£1.9m follow-up study to look at ‘Human health impact’
Following the success of the Chichester Harbour Microplastics Symposium back in 2018, Dr Corina Ciocan is now leading a team of specialists interested in developing quick tests to detect the impact of several chemical pollutants on marine organisms, with applicability in Chichester Harbour.
The £1.9million study is financed by the EU Interreg Channel programme and is bringing together specialists from France and the UK (including Chichester Harbour Conservancy).
The Interreg RedPol project, co-funded by the European Regional Development Fund, focuses on the endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) – pollutants able to induce reproductive, developmental and behavioural problems in the population of wild animals (and flora), which can generate an environmental imbalance.
In estuaries and coastal areas, where EDCs can limit the production of fish and molluscs, these compounds impact environmental health as well as the associated economic activities.
The RedPol specialists will test at least six compounds suspected of significantly impacting human health and environments. The research aims to improve industry practices, consolidate regulatory assessments and promote environmentally responsible behaviour.
Harbour Master Richard Craven, of Chichester Harbour Conservancy, said: “It is of great importance to the users of Chichester Harbour that we understand the sources and impacts of pollution in Chichester Harbour, and take early steps to tackle them. Our collaboration with the University of Brighton is providing a forensic assessment of the health of the Harbour.”
‘Tidal wave of boat abandonments’
Hampshire-based Boatbreakers is one of the few UK firms specialising in the disposal and recycling of end of life boats. Spokesman Luke Edney believes there could be a “tidal wave of abandonments” in the next 15 years.
He told PBO: “The reason I say a tidal wave is because boats started being made from fibreglass in the 1960s, those are now naturally getting a bit long in the tooth and losing value.
“Then you’ve got the 1970s, 80s, 90s and 00s boats getting older and losing their value. As fibreglass technology improved over the years, it was made thinner, some of the younger boats are not as tough as the older ones.
“Some places are developing technology to change that, and I’m sure there are places that would try and take a boat apart but it’s a costly process. In real terms landfill is the only option at the moment.
“I really hope that changes in the future but I also hope they don’t ban fibreglass going into landfill without real alternatives being in place, as it would increase the number of old boats being abandoned.”
There is concern that owners could take boats out to sea, drilling holes and letting them sink, if disposal routes are not created through legislation. Paddleboards and surfboards containing fibreglass are also currently unrecyclable and could pose a danger to marine life if dumped.
End-of-life vehicle regulations mean people may get £50 for scrapping a car – but Mr Edney said getting rid of a boat can cost about £100 per foot, meaning £3,000 for a 30ft (9m) vessel.
The BBC reports that Truro Harbour Authority in Cornwall spent £75,000 disposing of an old fishing boat and £50,000 getting rid of another. Mr Edney added: “Boats put such a pressure on finance, you’ve got to keep it somewhere. If a 30ft boat is costing money each year, people get a bit desperate to get rid of it.
“We sometimes get asked by boat owners to get rid of a boat, due to money trouble, it might be a really nice project boat but it needs a new owner, we’ll post it on our ‘Boat Scrapyard’ group on Facebook and say ‘open to sensible offers.’ I set it up in lockdown when I was furloughed and it’s got 37,000 members.
“People post every day. “If it’s a ropey boat we don’t sell it. We would strip off any items such as engines, outboards, lifejackets, rope, anchors and post those on our boatscrapyard.com shop – it’s like an online boat jumble. We would also recycle as much as we can – metal and wood.”
At Boatbreakers, the process for dealing with end of life boats is to crush the fibreglass “as small as possible”, then that goes into landfill.
Luke added: “It’s the lesser of two evils. If it’s abandoned, the boat will break down and microplastics get lodged in mussels and seafood. If you’re eating locally sourced mussels, then you’re eating the boats, which is not a nice thought that I’m eating fibreglass.”
“An issue not just on our shores”
A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) spokesperson said: “Illegal disposal of recreational boats is an issue not just on our shores, but in the whole North-East Atlantic.
“The UK is leading action under the new Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter to tackle end-of-life vessels. Working together with other countries, we will map the scale of the issue across the region and develop guidance to improve waste management for recreational vessels that are no longer wanted or fit for use.”
“The second Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter (RAP-ML) under OSPAR, the Convention for the Protection of the North East Atlantic, was launched on 28 June at the 2022 UN Ocean Conference. The RAP-ML serves as the main instrument to prevent and reduce marine litter as part of the North East Atlantic Environment Strategy 2030.
“Under the RAP-ML, we are taking leadership on improving the management of end-of-life recreational vessels. The UK is taking concrete steps to map the scale of the issue of end-of-life recreational vessels not only along our coastlines, but across the whole North-East Atlantic region, with the aim of then developing guidance to support better vessel waste management in the future.
“The UK also works internationally with other contracting parties to the London Convention and London Protocol to prevent dumping of waste and other matter at sea, including on improvements in end-of-life management of fibre-reinforced plastic vessels.
“The UK has established a £500million Blue Planet Fund, launched by the Prime Minister on 12 June 2021 at the G7 Summit. The fund will support developing countries to protect the marine environment and reduce poverty.
“The UK is an active member of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI): a pioneering alliance of the fishing industry, private companies, NGOs and governments working to solve the global problem of abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear.
“The UK Government is working with the Devolved Administrations to tackle waste fishing gear containing plastic in UK waters.
Bid to tackle composites recycling challenge
A new consortium has been formed with a long-term aim of creating the UK’s first glass fibre composites recycling and re-use facility of its kind.
Made up of the UK’s leading marine and maritime companies, composites specialists, academic institutions and local government organisations, the ‘Blue Composites Project’ aims to break ground in composites recycling and re-use to address the key environmental challenges facing the UK’s marine industry in its transition to zero emission shipping by 2050.
The collaboration is led by Blue Parameters, a Guernsey based marine consultancy, with the aim of creating the UK’s first large-scale glass-reinforced plastics (GRP) and fibre-reinforced plastics (FRP) recycling facility that will not only look at the process of recycling composite materials but also how the reclaimed materials and fibres could be repurposed for use in new composite components, such as boats, caravans, wind turbine blades and other high-performing products.
GRP boat statistics
There are an estimated six million boats in the EU alone, 95% of which are made of GRP.
Every year, around 1-2% (60,000-120,000) of these boats reach the end of their useful life. Of these, only 2,000 are recycled, while 6,000-9,000 are abandoned. Recycling old boats is an expensive business, costing an estimated €800 (£706) for a 7m (23ft) boat, rising to €1,500 (£1,324) for 10-12m (33-39ft) and up to €15,000 (£13,243) for boats over 15m (50ft) long.
According to the International Marine Organisation (2017), around 55,000 tonnes of GRP waste is produced from the UK marine sector every year, with the level expected to increase by 10% per year.
‘Revolutionary’ DEECOM process
The National Composites Centre has recently completed a project with B&M Longworth and Cygnet Texkemp that successfully reclaimed continuous carbon fibres from a whole pressure vessel using the DEECOM process and re-used them to manufacture a new pressure vessel. This was the first time this process was achieved in the UK.
Originally designed to remove waste polymer from plastics filters and production equipment, the DEECOM process, developed by B&M Longworth, uses pressurised superheated steam, to penetrate microscopic fissures in the composite’s polymer.
Upon decompression, it expands, cracking the polymer and carrying away broken particles. This pressure swing cycle is then repeated until all the matrix (the material suspended in the polymer) has been separated from the fibre, allowing the monomers to also be reclaimed for possible reprocessing.
It essentially ‘cleans’ the fibre, leaving the primary component material intact and undamaged, allowing for any length to be retained undamaged, providing much more scope for the material to be re-used in a wider range of applications.
Jen Hill, director at B&M Longworth, said: “We’ve been calling for a long time for this multi-disciplined approach to tackling FRP waste and we really believe that the impressive line-up of partners and supporters within this consortium are the right people to make it happen.”