End life of boats

What happens to boats that have reached the end of their useful life or have been abandoned?

What happens to boats that have reached the end of their useful life or have been abandoned?

There has been a flurry of interest in Europe recently about what happens to boats that have reached the end of their useful life or have been abandoned. Such vessels can lead to pollution, navigational hazards and removal costs for marinas, ports and recreational craft owners.  

Recreational craft that are at the end of their useful life need to be disposed of in a safe and environmentally responsible manner. This is no small problem. It is claimed that Europe has one of the largest concentrations of recreational craft in the world, with over 6 million in the European Union alone. It is estimated that as many as 95% of these are made from Fibre Reinforced Plastic.  

Because Fibre Reinforced Plastic is highly durable, end-of-life disposal has not been a major issue so far. However, the time is coming when even these boats will reach the end of their lives and will have to be disposed of. As regulation is starting to restrict the disposal of FRP to landfill, recycling will become the only realistic option.  


In October 2013 an EU funded project call the Boat Dismantling Insight by Generating Environmental and Safety Training (Boat DIGEST) was established to study the problem of end-of-life boats. The main activities were to identify boat dismantling and recycling practices, boat dismantling facilities across Europe and to gather dismantler and boat owner opinions in order to understand existing problems faced by them.  

The RYA, through its membership of the European Boating Association, was an Advisory Board Member of Boat DIGEST to provide suggestions and feedback on the deliverables. The result is that four sets of “Guidelines” have now been published on the project’s website at www.boatdigest.eu. These target: boat owners and nautical associations; marinas and leisure harbours; repair & refit companies; and boating schools and skipper training centres. The guidelines offer information on actions that can be taken by these four groups and the role they can play in raising awareness about the issue.  

Clearly, Boat DIGEST has made a valuable contribution in raising the level of awareness and knowledge of this issue among key sectors, however, the project did not make an assessment of the possible financing models for disposing of  old boats; this and where costs fall is the issue that troubles us most.    


Between 2010 and 2012 the European Union sponsored a project that addressed the end-of-life issue as part of an aim to reduce the environmental impact of the marine industry.

The main objective of the project was to reduce the impact of the nautical industry on the environment by developing new treatment, management and recovery methods for end-of-life recreational boats. The BOATCYCLE project also addressed boat production and manufacturing processes based on life-cycle assessment and an eco-design approach. Again the ‘who pays’ question was not addressed.  

Who will pay then?

Researchers have calculated that the average cost of conventionally dismantling a 7m long boat including logistics is €800, rising to some €1500 for a 10-12m boat and as much as €15,000 for boats of over 15 m. (The escalation is related more to boat volume than to length and to the greater complexity of larger boats).  

It has been mooted that the costs should fall on the boat owner, but many owners who are in place at the end of a boat’s life are unwilling or more likely unable to afford such substantial sums, at least within a short time span. Unlike owners of metal boats, which have significant scrap value in their recyclable metals, those who own reinforced plastic boats cannot rely on scrap value to reduce disposal costs. Collecting the costs from owners, even those that can be traced, may well be difficult.

The problem with the owner pays proposal is that it does not recognise that the boatbuilding industry has its part to play. Currently, there appears to be little incentive for innovation in green design and the development of new marine products that are more sustainable throughout their life-cycle and during scrapping and recycling.  

One concept that merits further examination is that of extended producer responsibility; a strategy in which the manufacturer’s responsibility for a product is extended to the post-consumer stage of a product’s life-cycle. In practice, this implies that manufacturers assume the responsibility for collecting or taking back used goods for their eventual recycling. This reflects the fact that boat builders and their suppliers are also key stakeholders in the life-cycle process and working towards sustainable and recyclable products is in their interests.  

This approach is not without its problems; often the original manufacturer goes out of business long before the boats they build reach the end of their lives. Also the costs of extended producer responsibility may well be reflected in increased life-cycle costs.  

Nevertheless, in the absence of any legal or regulatory instrument that requires the recycling of recreational craft or the correct management of abandoned craft in Europe, the marine industry must start developing viable disposal and recycling strategies akin to those that have evolved for the auto trade. The requirements for dismantling, reusing and recycling of end-of-life boats and their components should be integrated in the design and production of all new boats. Today, in spite of the great advances in waste management in Europe, there is a compelling need to include specific measures related to the management and recycling of boats aimed at:

  • ensuring that they are designed and manufactured in such a way as to allow reuse, recycling and recovery to be achieved;
  • preventing waste;
  • promoting reuse, recyclability and recovery;
  • obligating the use of manufacturing processes without hazardous substances;
  • improving the environmental performance of all involved in the life-cycle of boats.  

The future?

There is clear evidence that the European Commission is starting to take notice of this issue as part of the ‘circular economy’ (a generic term for an industrial economy that produces no waste and pollution) and a further study is expected in 2016; the future may well depend on action taken by the EU in the years to come.  

Action by the EU could include mandatory or non-mandatory regulatory measures, a legislative framework, or no measures at all. However, according to the BOATCYCLE experience certain measures are considered to be necessary in order to achieve the correct management of end-of-life and abandoned boats at an EU level. These may well include regulatory measures at EU and/or Member State level; creation of a European registration and deregistration system including information concerning boats that have reached their end-of-life status; and mandatory extended producer responsibility.  

Whatever happens, the RYA is keeping a close eye on developments through the European Boating Association in order to ensure that the views of boat users are fully represented and understood.