Boating is a major industry in the U.S., with millions of boat owners — and millions more who rent, borrow or charter boats throughout the year. In fact, there are an estimated 12.1 million registered boats in the U.S., as of 2015, with 95 percent of those being small watercraft under 26 feet in length.

The average boat has a lifespan of 30 to 40 years. So what happens to the boats that are ready for retirement?

Can Boats Be Recycled?

While fiberglass boats first appeared in the 1940s, they didn’t really take off until the 1960s. These new, easily manufactured boats made it easier for a middle-class person to afford a boat of their own. This led to a boom in boat sales in the 1960s and 1970s.

Unfortunately, many of these boats are now reaching the end of their lives and are ready for disposal. It is believed that there are 35 to 40 million boats around the world nearing their end of life. Sadly, many of these boats are not being disposed of in a sustainable manner.

Boats, like cars, are made of a variety of materials. Unlike boats, however, cars have been designed with considerable thought on end-of-life disposal. Nearly every part of a car can now be taken apart and recycled. Boats, on the other hand, weren’t designed with disposal in mind.

Most boats from the past 50 years were made using fiberglass. While this material is incredibly durable, it’s also quite difficult to recycle. In fact, until recently, recycling fiberglass wasn’t even possible.

Due to scientific advancements in fiberglass recycling, boat recycling is finally becoming a possibility. Yes, boats can be recycled, but it is no simple task.

How Do You Recycle a Boat?

If you have a boat today that you’d like to recycle, here’s what you should do. First, is the boat still seaworthy? If so, you can, of course, sell it. You can also attempt to donate it. Yacht World has an excellent guide to donating your old boat to charity. If your boat isn’t seaworthy anymore, disposal is the best option.

Disposal options vary from location to location, so talk with your local marina to find out what options are available near you. Some areas have a boat salvage yard that will take your old ship and dismantle it, and sell off any parts in working condition. They will also take care of removing hazardous fluids and disposing of the fiberglass body.

In many cases, though, the only available option is to send a boat to a landfill. When a boat is sent to a landfill, it must first have hazardous fluids, like oil, removed. If you are unable to do this yourself, reach out to a local boat shop to see if they provide this service.

Next, you should check to see if you can sell any of the components. While the vessel may no longer be seaworthy, the engine may still be of value, as well as other electronics and components of the ship. You can sell these online or check to see if local boat shops will purchase them. Most landfills will also charge a fee based on the weight of the ship, so be sure to call ahead to make sure they accept boats, and to find out what you need to do to the ship beforehand. Once the boat has been transported to the landfill, it will generally be ripped up and buried along with the rest of the garbage. Landfilling a boat is perhaps the worst option, next to abandoning or sinking it. Abandoning your boat, or intentionally sinking it, can lead to huge fines.

Some areas of the U.S. have boat recycling and disposal programs. California has one of the best programs in the country. The Vessel Turn-In Program allows boat owners to turn in their boat to a local agency. They will then dispose of your boat properly. While these programs are costly, they can reduce the number of abandoned boats in marinas.

Unfortunately, for most boat owners in the U.S., landfills and salvage yards are the only real options for disposing of their old vessel. That should begin to change in the coming years.

The Future of Boat Recycling

The cross-linking of polyester and fiberglass is what makes boat hulls so strong. However, this also makes it extremely difficult to separate the components for recycling. While it could be shredded and used as filler, this solution isn’t ideal. In a collaboration, Norwegian recycling company Veolia, SINTEF Materials and Chemistry, and several other companies joined together to see if they could figure out a way to recycle old ship hulls. After a significant amount of research, SINTEF has created a way to separate the polyester and fiberglass at impressive rates.

While the exact process isn’t shared, it goes something like this: the fiberglass/polyester hull is soaked in a material at a high temperature. The chemical mixture dissolves the bond, making it possible to then recycle. The process isn’t perfect yet, but this is a huge step toward recycling old boats rather than sending them to a landfill.

Some boating manufacturers have taken a hint from the auto industry and begun to design their boats with recycling in mind. While small steps like this don’t solve the current issue, they are improvements worth applauding. As the boating industry continues to search out more sustainable solutions, we should begin to see new options appear across the U.S.

Updated October 10,2023

By Brian Brassaw

Brian formerly managed the Earth911 Recycling Search and shared green living tips and tricks on Earth911’s Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter accounts. Brian also shares DIY projects on Little Pilots Lounge.