Limiting the use of fibreglass in yacht building

fig1Boats in GRP, glass fibre reinforced plastics, generally known as fibreglass, are an environmental problem because at the end of their life-cycle these materials can only be partly recycled and are hard to dispose of. If abandoned in the environment, they are highly polluting because their biodegradability is almost zero.

Marco Abbate

The difficulty of recycling is due to the unbreakable bond which, after polymerisation, “fuses” matrix and fabric in creating the laminate. This produces the physical continuity of the composite which gives these materials their high physical and mechanical performance. But at the end of the life-cycle it is no longer possible to separate the two original “phases” either chemically or thermally. If the resin matrix and the glassfibre could be separated they could be recuperated. This problem, due to the technical logical nature of composites, drastically reduces the eco-compatible solutions possible both for recycling and for the disposal of products made in this material. The problem is even more acute in the yachting sector because often structural components subjected to high levels of stress have elements in laminates with polyurethane cores or wood or metal stiffening inserted in the mould to make them stronger. Since for the disposal of fibreglass thermal fusion should be avoided, the wood or metal elements must be removed by hand, and this is very costly both in logistic and economic terms.
Production technologies such as the use of vacuums improve the quality and performance of laminates and have prolonged the efficient life of fibreglass boats. But despite these innovations the life-cycle of fibreglass can only be exploited for a finite period. And it is this time problem that makes a valid technology a “problem” that is hard to solve at the end of the life-cycle of the boat: disposing of it becomes a “critical phase” especially when this process is not regulated and efficiently managed. Add to this the absence of an audit system designed to make the boat owner responsible and combat such dangerous informal practices as rough and ready breaking up or abandonment. What makes the problem more urgent is a time limit that is very close to the present day. The calculation is easily done: considering that the life of products in fibreglass is on average about 50 to 60 years and that this kind of material began to be commercially widespread in boatbuilding around the 1960s, it is easy to see that the environmental problem is made urgent by the “queue” of older vessels that today have reached obsolescence. This is the nemesis of glassfibre composite technology: though it has been, and still is, a winning technology in economic and performance terms it hands the problem of disposing of products that use it down to later generations.
In Nordic countries, where techniques for the disposal and recycling are consolidated, used composites from boats are milled to produce sub- products of low technical and quality value: ingredients for cement conglomerates, reconstituted materials for floors, cladding panels, tops for furnishing etc. all these operations aim to reintroduce composites in “alternative” production cycles that solve the problem of the difficulties of disposal but considerably sacrifice the economic value of such a technologically “prized” material. But this sacrifice is certainly less than that involved in destroying the boat and sending the part in fibreglass to be disposed of in an incinerator.

The environmental problem
The size of the problem of disposing of fibreglass in the environment is in proportion to the success this construction technique has enjoyed. Both the product and the mould are made with the same material, which has an easily identified obsolescence date though no plans have been made for its disposal. Thus the solution is directly linked to the possibility of planning this phase. In fact only by inserting the disposal phase in the design and planning of a product in composites will it be possible to handle, in environmental rather than economic terms, the future disposal of an object manufactured today. The 98/2008/CE European Directive lays down that the responsibility for disposing of any abandoned refuse lies not with its owner but with its producer. And boats too are products, so the responsibility and cost of disposing of them could lie with the boat builder.
There are procedures for breaking up in more advanced industrial sectors where the handling of the phases of breaking up and recycling is a consolidated practice because it is governed by specific laws: the automotive sector starting from ELV Directive – 2000/53/CE – End of Life Vehicle Directive, and the shipping sector with IHM – Inventory of Hazardous Materials from the IMO, also known as the Green Passport. It is possible to transfer these Disassembling Procedure laws to the yachting sector. In Italy the UNI U810401 study group, formerly U810505, is drawing up the first technical regulations for the end-of-life treatment of yachts and small boats.

Support methods
The thesis has defined Life Cycle Analysis and Design for Disassembling as the theoretical and scientific supports necessary for correctly structuring the methodology of the research process. Life Cycle Analysis, as defined by the 14000 series ISO regulations, is the methodology for verifying the complete environmental compatibility of the product through the control of all the phases of its life-cycle: Project → Production → Use → Disposal. This starting from the sourcing and treatment of raw materials to methods of disposal and/or recycling when obsolescence is reached. For this process of analysis to be successful it needs to be effectively evaluated, with the specific Life Cycle Assessment procedure, and communicated. Life Cycle Analysis highlights the final phase of the life of a product because this has a big influence in evaluating its “environmental weight”. Vast the project must deal not only with “how to build” but also with “how to dispose of” industrial products. This is the design philosophy of Design for Disassembling, a concept that, if exploited by designers and yards with the use of new materials with low environmental impact, can stimulate the technical and formal reconfiguration of yachts.

Aim of the research
The research thesis, inspired by the emergency situation described, suggests a different approach to a solution: making a boat easy to dispose of and recyclable is an objective that is not limited by the impossibility of improving its design, in the lack of regulations or new technologies for disposal and recycling, but by the chemical and physical nature of the material in which boats are built, fibreglass. The proposal is a radical one: to replace the polluting “weight” of composites with unreinforced polymer materials that can be recycled and used with consolidated industrial technologies in production sectors that are technologically more refined. Product innovation that makes it possible to facilitate disposal procedures for boats at the end of their life cycles. This is a general target. The research study defines two more specific objectives: the first can be attained by answering three questions:
How to replace? By implementing a progressive program limiting the use of composites and instead using substitute plastic materials. The complete substitution of glass/aramid composites is difficult to achieve rapidly and completely.
Replace with what? The research studied the chemical-physical and mechanical and performance-related properties both of composite materials created by the fusion of a heat setting resin matrix, with its irreversible hardening process, and a fibrous phase, and of plastic materials with a thermoplastic based resin that can be returned by heating to the plastics state. From this analysis and comparison it emerged that these latter materials can offer mechanical strength, resistance to atmospheric agents and aggressive chemicals and a lifespan equal to or perhaps better than fibreglass. With the supervision of Acerbis Plastica Italia S.p.A., a plastic material mould and technical support of the study, researchers selected recyclable polymer materials most suited to the aims of the research and habitually used by the company in its production processes.
Where to replace? To define “where” and/or “what” can be substituted, it is first necessary to study what kind of “organism” the boat is, the peculiar features of its architecture and above all its construction technologies. This step is not of secondary importance because, referring to the Disassembling procedure, understanding the construction/assembly logic of a yacht is the only way of deciding how it can be suitably disassembled at the end of its life-cycle. In addition it is necessary to study how and why this architecture is different for sailing and motorboats and why, in these two archetypes, the construction and structural characteristics are different and produce different hull shapes and deck architecture depending on the propulsion system.

The boat as a sum of systems
To break down the typical boat, researchers used a distinct technical classification for systems, subsystems and technological units. The study can be held to be valid for any type of sailing or motor boat. But in the case of sailing boats further integration of specific subclasses related to the sail rig and deck equipment must necessarily be considered. The classification started with the “reading” of the typical boat through two virtual architectural transitions: from the topsides to the bottom and from the exterior to the interior. This operation was based on a breakdown system that was subjectively interpreted for the specific aims of the research, which may thus differ from normal treatments in naval architecture and yacht design.


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