All hands on deck

8 min read

We talked to marine specialist Evan Ridley about Rhode Island initiatives to recycle end of life composite boat materials, and how they could be implemented across the U.S. and globally.

Reinforced Plastics (RP): What’s your background?

Evan Ridley (ER): Having lived in coastal communities my whole life, I understand the dynamic between the marine industry and some of the characteristics that are inherent to living on the coast and living in a place like Rhode Island, where there are a lot of waste management options. My approach to composites material recycling is very much from a policy and research background.

I spent a lot of time at the University of Rhode Island where, as part of the department of marine affairs, I worked as a research assistant for the Sea Grant program. In the United States, Sea Grant is a nationally-funded research extension service that serves coastal communities. It was my time there that really kick-started the research into landfill alternatives for composite hulls. That evolved into some funded work that I took on with the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association, which acts as a chamber of commerce for the marine industry here in Rhode Island, supporting everyone from vessel manufacturers all the way down to service providers and dealers and folks that are connected to that ecosystem.

As you can imagine, this required some collaboration beyond the boatbuilding world and the marine manufacturing world and led us down a path that had been previously established by folks in places such as Germany and Denmark. They had worked closely with the wind energy industry to show that the composite material used in wind blades could be reused in cement manufacturing. We used that as a foot in the door to begin building a logistic network here in Rhode Island, working backward to build a connection with the cement industry and identify some potential end-users. With their support, we developed a series of technical trials to use this recyclate as an alternative fuel and raw material substitute in U.S. cement kilns, and the tests were successful. That proof of concept was really the driving force behind our association continuing to carry out these activities, managing this network of partners with the support of industry grants and with the support of some funding from NOAA  the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its Marine Debris Program.

What started as a research initiative has evolved into an ongoing industry project that has attracted a lot of support from the government, industry stakeholders and the composites sector at large. We have been very fortunate to be able to connect with folks such as the American Composites Manufacturers Association and other sectors and end-users who are looking to apply a recycling technology to this kind of material.

Currently, we are keeping that work going here in Rhode Island but also working to help other states replicate this network model in places that might have even more successful conditions for a long-term operation.

RP: Is this part of what is known as blue technology?

ER: Here in Rhode Island, we talk a lot about the blue economy and so blue tech is part of this larger blue economy. Within that bigger sphere, there are traditional industries – such as the marine industry – that have evolved over time, and composites are a big part of that, especially here in Rhode Island. But then you also have the tech and advanced materials and other aspects such as renewable energy that are also playing a major role in how the marine industry can be sustainable going forward. In Rhode Island, we can see a little piece of each of those aspects of the blue economy, including blue tech, as it begins to impact maritime more and more. We are in a unique position to observe how that works or doesn’t work moving forward.

RP: How big a role can composites play in blue technology?

ER: We have learned over the last century that composites really are the ideal material for operating in the marine environment in terms of strength and performance. Moving forward, as composite technologies advance, they will certainly be at the forefront of marine product manufacturing and marine applications.

However, while this progression is happening, we are recognizing more and more that these strengths come with some challenges, especially on the lifecycle management side. Materials circularity and recovery will certainly play a major role in how composites advance in the boatbuilding world. Increasingly, consumers have more interest in the lifecycle of any product, and this is especially true with boats due to their deep connection to the marine environment.

Unfortunately, because composites last so long, many boat owners do not think about that time horizon when they are interacting with this product. We are only now learning about what happens when boats are left to become derelict or abandoned. The same material properties that make composites beneficial and attractive can end up being extremely challenging at end-of-life. The degradation of composites in the marine environment has attracted a lot of academic research recently. For example, scientists at the University of Brighton have shown that glass fiber and polymer resin are ending up in the tissue of shellfish and other invertebrates in the marine ecosystem. 

While I think composites will remain at the forefront of innovation in the marine industry, it is very important to consider end-of-lifecycle challenges – and see how using natural fibers and biobased resins can mitigate the problem.

RP: Is there any way that boatbuilding composites can be recycled and put back into use in the marine industry?

ER: From what I understand through research and through talking with people in the composites world, that closed-loop opportunity is not here yet. I think that is one of the things that the public really struggles with when considering what to do with a composite boat at the end of its lifecycle. Currently, there is no way to separate fiber and resin and reapply that in a way that has attracted market demand and proven itself as a comparable material to the virgin material.

I have no doubt that technologies and processes are continuing to march toward that point, but it is going to be a long road. It will also require a lot of regulatory input and subsidization. I do think that it is ultimately possible to see a future where fiber and resin are extracted in an energy-efficient environment and are applied to the manufacture of new composites. The materials will probably not be in the exact same form as in their first lifecycle but may still be able to provide the necessary levels of performance and strength and weight.

RP: Is that why the industry has joined forces with other industries such as cement manufacture?

ER: Yes. This in turn can lead to supply chain challenges, and we have learned that to build a supply chain that can manage end-of-life glass fiber or other composites, it must be able to handle more than one type of material. From an economic and logistics standpoint, the end-user industry should be capable of taking both end-of-life and virgin material, manufacturing scrap, different resins, different consistencies between fiber and resin, and even ancillary materials such as balsa wood, foam core or other fillers.

To move on from that, we need to find a ‘middleman’ industry that can carry out material separation – as long as the separation process is also environmentally sustainable – there are still energy concerns around pyrolysis [thermal decomposition of materials at elevated temperatures in an inert atmosphere] and other techniques used to separate the resin from the fiber.

As a result, I believe we will develop a patchwork of outlets and opportunities that may not necessarily look identical from place to place, from nation to nation, or even here in the U.S. from state to state.

RP: How is this situation unique to Rhode Island, being the smallest state in the USA?

ER:  Our central landfill only has limited capacity left, so we need to work quickly to develop alternatives. But because of our size, we can act as a laboratory for the rest of the country. We can try new things without having to upset a lot of people!

RP: Are boatbuilders in the state on board with your plans for end-of-life materials recycling?

ER:  We have seen support from small-scale manufacturers, and interest from different kinds of businesses throughout the industry, large and small. Some of the larger manufacturers have also been tremendous supporters of this work. While we see that support across the spectrum, we also recognize that in this industry there is a lot of pressure for operators to meet demands, meet the production numbers and ensure that employees get paid. The sustainability and the lifecycle of their products is something that they care about but ultimately is not the top priority. In the last year or so, there has been a giant boom in demand, which has really shifted the focus towards keeping customers happy and keeping employees busy and safe. While there is an interest and a willingness to do the right thing, it is up to us to incentivize the manufacturers to make recycling commitments.

However, everyone recognizes that the health of the marine industry depends on a healthy environment. People are not going to want to go sailing if the environment and the coastal environment are not clean or not healthy. I think we have, like the wind industry, an image issue to work with and some factors to consider that really dig at the core of who we are as businesses. I think that ultimately is another big motivator on the marine side.

RP: Do you have any pushback from some of the small or older boatbuilding companies?

ER: Everything counts when it comes to cost! Consider a boatbuilder that has a 30-yard container with five or six tons of stuff that they need to dispose of. It can cost them around three or four times more to pay us to recycle it than to pay the dumpster hauler to pick it up and take it to the landfill.

But we are doing this on a small scale right now. If we include more pick-up points, more volume, we work toward better rates with our waste management partners, which would drop the price for everybody. But because the practice is not widely adopted, we are dealing with that challenge of scale and volume, and in the recycling world that is everything.

RP: Are boat owners on your side?

ER: Our association deals exclusively with businesses that cater to the leisure yachting industry. In this industry, there has been a tremendous shift in concern and consumer focus when it comes to ensuring that their time spent on the water, their time maintaining their boat, and ultimately the time that is committed to getting rid of it, is all done in an environmentally sensitive way.

However, when you tell individual boat owners how much it is going to cost for them to do this currently, they start to back down. Not all of them; obviously, some boat owners are very well off and have the means to ensure that this product that they have enjoyed gets managed properly, and so they are willing to make that investment.

There is definitely support within the boating community for us to find new ways to dispose of end-of-life boats. Many people do not know where to get the right information or simply do not have any options and are stuck. When that happens, boats get abandoned, and the state ultimately ends up having to pay for it. While this lack of options has been addressed on several fronts, I think our project is the one that is the most industry-driven.

RP: How have the last couple of years affected the marine industry in Rhode Island and the US in general?

ER: As with many industries, COVID-19 made us wonder how operations were going to carry forward. Here in Rhode Island, we are obviously a destination for boaters from out of state, who did not contribute to the Rhode Island economy during the pandemic. However, for the industry as a whole, it has been a very positive time because we have seen a huge boom in interest in recreational boating. For the last 16 months or so it has been really difficult to buy a boat. Manufacturers are really digging in to keep up with the orders and the demand.

There has also been an influx of new owners – people who have never owned boats and need a lot of guidance and assistance, not only about sailing but how to maintain their boats and their products.

RP: Have there been any supply chain issues like in the UK?

ER: That is the flip side. Manufacturers are doing what they can to put boats out, but they cannot always get the materials to build them. There is a supply chain squeeze impacting boatbuilding. Looking forward, I think the industry will be able to work around those squeezes, and the second-hand ownership market will help.

We are also seeing new avenues into ownership. Now, there are groups like the Freedom Boat Club, operated by Brunswick, where people can reserve boats ahead of time, and also shared ownership options.

RP: What do you think the future holds?

EP: Our state is very lucky to be one of the leading voices in this conversation around the future of sustainable composites in the marine industry. Rhode Island is where the first composite boats were built on a large scale, and we were able to pioneer a technology that has proven to be very critical to creating the recreational industry that exists today. Now, we are continuing to hold that torch but we are going in a little bit of a different direction when it comes to how that material is managed and utilized.