Building Yachts Sustainably. Why aren’t we doing more?

  • Posted June 27, 2024

For decades now, we’ve been building yachts, personal watercraft and commercial vessels from GRP (Glass Reinforced Plastic) – A hideous mixture of tiny glass fibres and chemical resins, combined to produce a lightweight and strong composite end product that floats and doesn’t allow water ingress.

The product that we’ve used to build our boats for all these years however, is not biodegradable, recyclable or reusable. Around the world there are damaged or unused boat hulls and parts littering boatyards, storage facilities and even the bottoms of our rivers, lakes and seas.

Yet within the world of boatbuilding there are very few who are trying to bring about any form of change when it comes to making small boatbuilding any more sustainable. The general consensus seems to be that nobody wants to be the first to change, or to invest in the technology required so that vessels can either be broken down or their major components reused in the future. Whilst the environmental impact versus major issues, such as carbon emissions, is small, finding a way to break down or recycle yachts will give our industry one hell of a profile boost.

The technology to build cleaner, more sustainable boats has been around for at least the past five years. Companies such as Baltic Yachts have been introducing cleaner and more recyclable fibre into their yacht builds for a period now. At the time, the shipyard received acclaim for its efforts, but we’ve heard little from them or indeed the wider market about the sustainability improvements that the use of hemps and flaxes has made to their overall environmental impact or indeed if there have been any negative outcomes from their use.

Likewise, Northern Light Composites (name check) have built a 100% recyclable Optimist. Made from fully recycled materials and, in itself, fully recyclable. Carbon emissions of the overall process are unknown, but the entire build leaves no trace and can be recycled once more come end of life.

The UK is a major boatbuilder in composites but seems to show no effort in developing cleaner composite solutions, instead relying on European innovators to come up with the technology that they will ever-so-slowly adapt to.

So how do we encourage the adoption of new, cleaner boatbuilding tech?

RegulationThe obvious suggestion would be the introduction of regulation on UK boatbuilding. Shipyards must use specific technologies or products during the manufacturing process, proving wastage and showing its reduction – A heavy-handed approach that likely is too much, too quickly and also not enforceable.

Green Credits Introduce either tax credits or innovation grants to allow businesses and shipyards to work on innovations in composite manufacture, to trial new products and to work out how to break down existing hulls with technology that will leave minimal by-production.

PartnershipsEncouraging composite pioneers to engage closely with shipyards, to work with their R&D departments on a common goal to make boatbuilding more sustainable.

Taxation Punish those who aren’t showing intiative or a drive towards cleaner production. Tax based on value of waste output per annum or on numbers of vessels sold, to encourage reduction of carbon and physical footprint.

The Consumer – The consumer needs to be more forceful when it comes to their expectations. If a buyer is happy with a high emission plastic yacht, the yachtbuilder will keep building it. If the buyer starts to hold the shipyard to account, they are forced to change their ways. A futile but idealistic expectation.

As the world moves into a new phase, with a huge pressure on reducing the footprint we create on our planet, we all need to be making the effort to clean up our act. As an industry, we need to work together, we need to innovate and we need to invest in our futures, driving the morally correct outcomes, not the outcomes that simply result in the best profits.