PBO is passionate about restoring old boats, but what happens when they’re beyond repair? Nic Compton looks at the problem of disposal

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Steve Franklin is on a mission. He’s made it his business to deal with the increasing numbers of boats in the UK reaching the end of their useful lives, too many of which end up abandoned in marinas or cluttering up creeks around the country. It’s a growing problem which the UK’s boating industry – unlike most other European countries – seems to be reluctant to deal with. And it’s driving this self-appointed Undertaker of the Boating World a little bit nuts.

“It’s about blasted time people started listening to us,” he says, when I speak to him on the phone to arrange an interview. “We need people everywhere to look for more effective solutions, because the problem isn’t getting any better.”

And certainly the figures make uncomfortable reading. According to a recent study, there are 6 million boats in the EU, about 95% of which are made of GRP. Every year, around 1-2% (ie 60,000-120,000) of these boats reach the end of their useful life. Of these, only 2,000 are recycled, while another 6,000-9,000 are abandoned in a variety of unsightly ways. The rest are presumably being kept by reluctant owners at their own expense.

“No-one wants to accept liability for end of life,” says Steve. “Boat insurance companies say they don’t break boats up; they give them back to the owners who have to deal with it. Marinas won’t pay to have abandoned boats removed; they just put them on ebay and sell them for £1 to get rid of them. Anyone can buy a boat for £1, strip it of all the good bits and then dump it somewhere. Who’s then liable? Not the marina, because they sold the boat for £1. The owner can’t be traced, because we don’t have an owner registration scheme. So it’s the local council that has to deal with it, and local taxpayers have to pay the bill. It’s so unethical.”

A wooden boat whose owner has passed away is dismantled on site in Hampshire. Its Yanmar engine was saved and fitted to another boat

The problem, as usual, is money; who pays for these old boats to be disposed of? Under the current UK model, whoever happens to own the boat when it reaches the end of its life has to pick up the tab. That seems fair enough, but in fact that person is probably the least likely to be able to afford to pay for this service.

Because boat breaking is not cheap. EU research suggests it costs around €800 to dispose of a 23-footer, rising to €1,500 for a 33-39ft boat and up to €15,000 for boats over 50ft long. Boatbreakers themselves put the price at about £100 per foot – ie £3,000 for a 30ft yacht (though contact them directly for a detailed quote, as it may be less depending on location, etc).

While I was researching this article, I heard from a boatyard in Cornwall which had to pay nearly £40,000 to dispose of two wooden MFVs that had been abandoned on its premises.

So who should pay for this? What about the original owner who commissioned the boat in the first place? Or the builders who profited from selling it? Or all the other owners down the line who enjoyed sailing the boat and were once proud to call it their own? Inevitably, as the boat gets older and its value diminishes, it ends up in the hands of the less wealthy and in cheaper moorings – which is why so many backwater yards end up with so many old wrecks. And by definition these are the very owners and boatyards that can least afford to pay for the boat’s disposal.

The result is an increasing number of boat graveyards where boats are dumped without any means of tracing the owner. The local council, or worse, the Harbour Board (which has a fraction of the budget) is then faced with the difficult choice of whether to dispose of the boats at their own expense, thereby providing a de facto free boat recycling service, or leave them to pile up and become more of an eyesore and possible health and environmental risk.

It’s a natural cycle which has been going on for years, but the problem is set to reach crisis point as the boatbuilding boom of the 1960s and 70s catches up with us and thousands of (mostly GRP) boats reach the end of their useful lives.

Combine that with a declining interest in sailing among younger people and a glut of second-hand boats on the market leading to a decline in the value of old boats, and we really are heading for a perfect storm. All this at time when concern for the environment is reaching fever pitch, and it really won’t do to simply scuttle boats out at sea and not worry about the consequences.

For it turns out that, far from creating a natural habitat for sea life, scuttled boats tend to move around on the seabed, destroying coral in tropical areas and damaging precious sea grass in northern climes. And that’s not to mention the unknown repercussions of the chemicals and micro-plastics which are released into the sea as the boat degrades.

“It’s worse for boats than it is for cars,” says Boatbreakers’ communications manager Luke Edney. “With cars, the value drops and drops, and then levels out, because you can always get £50 for scrap. Whereas with boats, the value drops and drops and then goes below zero, because it’s going to cost you £20,000 to get it scrapped if it’s a big one. We get people calling who haven’t been able to sell their boats and are worried about paying their marina fees. They would rather pay for the boat to be scrapped than have to pay more bills. It’s a relief for them not to have to worry about it any more.”

There are, however, solutions to the problem both of what to do with the old boats and how to finance their disposal – though most of that progress is being made outside the UK.

The EU has commissioned two major projects into boat recycling: Boatcycle (2010-12) which produced guidelines for building boats in a more sustainable way in the first place as well as instructions for dismantling and recycling end-of-life boats, and Boat DIGEST (2013-15), which provides training and accreditation for boat dismantling.

Neither, however, addressed the thorny issue of who should pay the cost of scrapping.

One possible solution is a national boat recycling scheme funded by a tax at the point of sale and/or as a levy on boat insurance. The money would be collected by a regulatory authority and used to dispose of old boats.

“The solution is for people to stand up and accept responsibility for their position,” says Steve. “We need a European-wide remit to capture that money from anybody who owns a boat, from a dinghy right up to a Sunseeker. It all comes from the same kind of material, and you’ve still got to get rid of it. There should be a premium either on insurance or on new sales – like they do with cars – so that when a boat reaches the end of its life the owner can just ring Boatbreakers, or whoever, and ask us to collect it for disposal, no matter how much they paid for it or how old the boat is.”

Should there be a sales tax on buying a boat?

The idea of a sales tax is supported by Phil Horton, the RYA’s environment and sustainability manager, who sees it as part of a broader picture.

“We need to consider the issue of extended producer responsibility,” he says. “Boat manufacturers need to think about the long-term impact of what they are doing and contribute to the boats’ eventual disposal. It’s like batteries: you can take any make of battery to a recycling centre because manufacturers are required by law to join the Battery Compliance Scheme and pay for old batteries to be recycled.”

Elsewhere in the world, governments are taking a more proactive approach and dealing with the growing problem of abandoned boats. In Canada, the government has paid to have derelict boats removed from its coasts. In 2018, the Swedish government provided r300,000 in subsidies to scrap 500 boats under 3 tonnes free of charge, providing the owners paid for transportation costs.

But France seems to have found the best solution. Thanks to new rules introduced in 2019, owners are required to pay an ‘eco tax’ when they register their boats – which is obligatory – and the funds generated are used to scrap old ones. As in Sweden, all the owners have to do is have the boat transported to an approved recycling centre.

The problem has even reached Tahiti, where boats are regularly dumped and their owners vanish without trace. On such a small island there are limited landfill options, so dealing with these derelict hulls is a growing problem. So much so that marine ecologist Simon Bray was commissioned to write a report for the United Nations. His conclusion echoes the views of Boatbreakers and the RYA.

“Legislation will be the driver of change,” he wrote. “The most feasible routes towards funding future recycling appear to be levy systems on new boat sales and on ownership registration leading to centralised funds to back up vessel recycling programmes.”

So far, the British government has taken a lackadaisical attitude to the problem, but the growing interest in environmental issues and in particular about plastic pollution is likely to change all that.

“If you try to talk to government about old boats, they say it’s a boating problem and it’s up to the boating sector to sort it out,” says Luke. “But if you say it’s non-recyclable plastic boats being dumped around the country, alarm bells start ringing. That opens up opportunities for conversations with government.”

The Boatbreakers yard in Gosport currently processes about 200 boats per year

It’s a subject close to Steve’s heart and something this former navy man turned boat entrepreneur has been banging on about for over a decade.

Having trained as a boat surveyor in the mid 2000s, Steve found himself writing off more and more old boats and wondered what happened to them next. A bit of research showed that no-one in the UK was offering a boat breaking service, and so Boatbreakers was born. What started as a business opportunity gradually developed more of an environmental purpose.

“At that time, we threw everything away,” Steve says. “Engines went to the car breakers, masts to the metal scrap yard. We’ve evolved since then, and we’ve developed processes to deal with all parts of the boat safely and to recycle as much as possible. Our policy is to do it right, even though it costs us more to do it right – and anyway DEFRA won’t let us do it any other way!

“To start with, we set aside various hazardous materials – fuel, oils, gasses and anything else that might harm the environment – which we take out and put to one side. Then we take the engine out and remove the oil, we take the fuel tank out and empty the fuel – all the oil and fuel goes for recycling. If the mast is reusable, we’ll set it aside, stack it and offer it for sale; if it’s old there’s no point, so we’ll squash it down into a cube and that goes to recycling and gets melted down. Whatever we can repurpose we now keep – we don’t just bin it.”

Steve estimates the fittings and other parts make up about 30% of the boat, of which they repurpose more than 90% (amounting to 28% of the whole boat). In fact, selling second-hand boat parts salvaged from old boats is an essential part of the business, and Boatbreakers have a warehouse full of bits they sell on the internet. Steve reckons they’ve accumulated some 100,000 boat bits (“Though it might be a million, who can tell?”) ranging from portholes to foul weather gear, bathing ladders, engine parts, winches, windlasses, saloon tables and even pots of paint.

He sells whole engines, though out of the 200 boats the company has broken up in the last year, Steve reckons they only pulled out ten really good engines for resale. “Owners know engines have value, so they often take them out and sell them themselves before we get there.”

Once the hull is stripped of all its fittings, the bare hull is then crushed and the remains dealt with accordingly. Of the yard’s current intake of about 200 boats per year, Steve reckons 70% are GRP and 30% are wood – they receive hardly any metal boats, partly because there are less of them in the first place but also because owners can sell them for scrap. Some car breakers accept metal boats and will pay the going rate for the metal they contain.

If the boat is GRP, the story ends there. There is currently no process in the UK for recycling glassfibre, so the chopped up hulls go straight to landfill – which Boatbreakers have to pay for. Part of the problem is that a boat’s hull is a composite, made up of gelcoat, followed by glassfibre, followed by a foam or balsa core, followed by more glassfibre or other lining, with extra layers of glassfibre, wood and/or metal reinforcement in strategic locations around the hull. Separating the various elements is an expensive process and the end result is something which at the moment has little or no commercial value – unlike carbon fibre, where the raw materials are expensive enough to warrant recycling.

Recycling fibreglass

A GRP hull was turned into tiles by a fashion student and displayed in a Milan design show

There are options for re-using fibreglass which are being trialled in other countries. In the USA, a company called Eco-wolf has been grinding down fibreglass since the 1970s and using it to make bathtubs and railways sleepers – as well as turning it into filler for boat repairs. A company in Norway is grinding the stuff down and turning it into flowerpots and benches.

Other options include chopping it up and mixing it with asphalt to produce a hard-wearing road surfacing material, or burning it to produce energy – at extremely high temperatures, burning fibreglass is surprisingly clean, though it produces a lot of waste ash which then has to be disposed of, usually through landfill.

The problem is particularly acute in Germany where, due mainly to the high number of wind turbine blades reaching their end of life, fibreglass has been banned from going to landfill. Instead, old fibreglass is ground down and mixed in a cement kiln to produce concrete – a model replicated in Rhode Island, USA, and elsewhere. Indeed, this is probably one of the most successful uses for the material.

And there are some unexpected artistic uses for old boats. “We had a call from a design student in London who wanted some fibreglass to make recycled tiles from,” says Steve. “So we found some thin bits from an old dinghy for him, and it ended up being exhibited at the Milan design show!”

This bow of a racing boat (cut-off to be replaced with a new one) now takes pride of place on an Australian building

A few lucky boats that are in good condition are restored and sold on – with the previous owner’s consent. But, worryingly, for owners of older fibreglass boats, Steve has noticed that hulls that are more than about 25 years old are much less resilient than newer boats.

“When we break up a boat that’s more than 25 years old, the hull shatters because the fibreglass is really brittle. A newer boat is much more pliable and more resilient to the crushing machine.”

The situation is a little better for wooden boats – though lovers of venerable old classics which have gone past their prime should skip the next couple of paragraphs.

“Wooden boats shatter up quite nicely into shards of wood,” says Steve. “Teak mahogany, or whatever. It all goes in the wood bin and probably ends up as chipboard. People think we take off each plank individually, but we would just end up with piles of wood of all kinds of strange shapes that we could never sell.

“Anyway, most of it is as rotten as a peach and can’t be repurposed: remember it’s coming here because it’s been damaged or written off. Some wooden boats are literally falling apart as they come off the lorry. Once we take them apart, the keels are usually black, wet and rotten, and the cost of repair is more than the boat’s worth.

“It’s a shocking idea this, that a lovely old boat built in the 1930s, at the very peak of the wooden boatbuilding era, using the best quality timber – probably better than anything available today – should be crushed and turned into chipboard. But what are the alternatives? There are only so many pubs that can turn a clinker hull into a characterful bar or quirky seat. Turn them upside down and turn them into sheds and cabins to let on Airbnb? Again, it’s a limited market.

“It’s a shame to have to do it, but that’s the reality of it,” says Steve.

“The most uncomfortable part of the process for me is if the owner is there and he or she breaks down. It happens a lot, and I genuinely have empathy for people because it’s their personal history we’re taking away. And it’s not their fault the boat has got to that point, because fibreglass doesn’t last forever.

“There was one small yacht this guy had owned since it was new. He’d taken his kids out on it, but now the kids were grown up and no-one wanted it anymore. When I got there, the wife was there, as well as the mum and dad, and the son and daughter; they were all in a row crying. I don’t care so much about the boats, but I do care about the owners. Because it’s a difficult job; we are the undertakers, and we have to have some empathy towards them.”

One of the main obstacles faced by boat breakers in the UK is the issue of transport – the cost of getting the boats to the breaker’s yard is usually the most expensive part of the process. Steve hopes to address this problem by franchising the Boatbreakers brand and creating a network of yards around the UK, so that boats can be disposed of locally rather than transported to his yard in Portsmouth. That in turn would reduce the cost of the service and hopefully encourage people to dispose of their boats responsibly rather than dumping them.

The only take up so far has been a possible outpost in Poland, but Steve is hopeful there will soon be branches of Boatbreakers springing up all around the country.

The other big issue facing Boatbreakers – and boat breakers more generally – is finding a commercial use for old fibreglass, whether it comes from old boats, wind generators or old caravans. Once the material has some commercial value, then the cost of breaking boats will become more affordable and, who knows, old hulls might one day acquire some value as scrap. In which case owners will be queuing up to take their old boats to the knacker’s yard.

Last but not least, Steve believes there should be greater accountability for owners. “You can’t abandon a car because there’s a number on it; that number is linked to a logbook, and that logbook is linked to the owner via the DVLA. But boats in the UK can’t be traced to individual owners.

“The Small Ships Register isn’t effective because it’s a voluntary scheme which isn’t automatically updated. We could scoop up boats all day long if we could trace their owners. We need a legal scheme to register owners and boats so that they can be traced to determine who is responsible for the end of life.”

Owner registration, extended producer responsibility, a national boat recycling scheme – these are all possible solutions to this increasingly intractable problem. And it’s an issue which is only likely to get much, much worse. Unless something is done, we will continue to rely on the honesty of individual boat owners to do the right thing, and there will always be those who take advantages of the many loopholes in the current system.

It all makes perfect sense, and I’m absolutely persuaded by all the arguments in favour of boat recycling. However, the weather was foul when I visited Boatbreakers and I didn’t get to see the yard in action, so when I get home I decide to watch it online. Steve and Luke have not only featured in several episodes of Scrap Kings on Quest TV (dplay.co.uk) but have their own YouTube channel Boatbreakers Video.

Watching them at work was a mistake. I can barely look as a seemingly sound Hillyard 9-tonner is demolished in minutes by a digger, while Steve chats happily to the camera.

And suddenly it dawns on me: this really is an end of life scene and Steve really is the undertaker, and of course death is never pretty. The best we can hope for is that our ashes will fertilise a plant, or that a chopped hull will feed a furnace or pave some roads. It’s all part of the cycle of life.

Old boats RIP.

Originally published in July 2020 issue of PBO.