RI Boat Recycling Project Benefits from SEG Huddle

Evan Ridley from the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association (RIMTA) has tackled a huge problem. As project manager for RIMTA’s Fiberglass Vessel Recycling Pilot Project, he’s working on a solution to reduce the mountains of end-of-life fiberglass boats buried in landfills. What started as a research project for Rhode Island Sea Grant, which he undertook while earning a graduate degree in Marine Affairs at the University of Rhode Island, has grown into a grant-supported initiative funded by 11th Hour Racing.

“We know there is a problem with having a lack of alternatives to landfilling for end-of-life fiberglass boats,” says Evan. “We know this is going to be a growing problem, looking at the rates of boat manufacturing that occurred over the seventies, eighties, and nineties. That’s hundreds of thousands of boats per year, not including the tens of thousands of boats that are total losses every year because of storms and natural disasters. It’s a huge marine debris issue and a huge infrastructure issue from a waste management standpoint. We have this potential solution that could help alleviate some of those pressures. What we don’t know is how to make it competitive to landfilling.”

Getting to a potential solution has taken Evan on a journey from the wind turbine industry in Germany and Denmark to a cement kiln in South Carolina. It turns out, as turbine blade recyclers have learned, fiberglass is a valuable resource in cement manufacture. It contains polyester resin that can produce thermal energy for firing a cement kiln, and the glass fiber itself can be used as a replacement for sand and limestone, which would otherwise need to be mined.

“We would love to see Rhode Island lead on this and become the first state with a fiberglass boat recycling program. With the Huddle, SEG gave us a great opportunity to give a goal-oriented, focused presentation on where we intend to go in the next couple of months and over the next year and to take advantage of knowledge that’s already out there.”

The technical end of RIMTA’s pilot project in recycling fiberglass boats has been proven out. In a cement kiln trial designed through a partnership with Geocycle, a company that works worldwide to achieve a zero-waste future, RIMTA has shown that disassembled and shredded fiberglass boats from Rhode Island’s own coast have a reuse value similar to wind turbine blades. Now the goal is to prove out the economic case for recycling fiberglass boats. Longer-term goals are to establish a regional network for processing the material and to identify a group of stakeholders who can scale the project nationwide.

The Challenge

For Evan, it’s a two-part business challenge: make the numbers work and convince the stakeholders to buy in. “We want to learn from other industries, such as automotive recyclers, who have more experience with managing material streams and the life cycle of products. How can we begin to make some of the recycling steps that we’ve outlined in our network model more efficient, more cost effective? And second, how can we get big companies and industry organizations to move on it? They are now at the point where they are saying, wow, we see value in this, please keep us posted on your progress. How do we persuade them to invest in what it takes to build a permanent infrastructure for fiberglass boat recycling so they can take advantage of all the benefits that come with that?

The SEG Huddle

To provide RIMTA with multiple business perspectives on what would be required to make the economic case, Social Enterprise Greenhouse pulled together a Huddle of local expert advisors to meet with Evan. The team included Chris Cannon, Board Chair at the IYRS School of Technology & Trades; David Ford, Board Chair at the Herreshoff Marine Museum; Joseph Hearn, President/CEO of Advanced Remarketing Services; and Mike Keyworth, former Board Chair of RIMTA. Drew Carey, CEO of Inspire Environmental, also offered a perspective.

“I’ve always found it really valuable to take advantage of a mix of people from all kinds of industry and business backgrounds that might not be people that you’d overlap or interact with otherwise,” says Evan. “All of a sudden you have this one-on-one opportunity to give them a pitch and share your idea and get feedback that sounds a lot different than what you might hear when you are working in a small organization and seeking outside sources of information and leadership.”

The Feedback

The SEG Huddle offered Evan’s team a business perspective to apply to the economic questions they face. The questions require detailed analysis. “How do we compete with landfilling, and how do we recognize that there are going to be cost differentials, and how do we sell those and internalize those to the people who are going to benefit from the solution?” he explains. “Why would it be important for them to invest an extra $50 to $100 per ton of material at this point so that down the road we can reduce costs but have expanded capacity, capability, and partnerships and an expanded spectrum of material that we can draw from?”

During the conversation, remarks by Joe Hearn from Advanced Remarketing Services, stood out. Based in Middletown, R.I., the company specializes in remarketing in the automobile recycling industry. “Joe understands material flow, knows automotive recycling well, and knows the material separation and scrap process well,” says Evan. “He deals with those issues on a scale that is national and recognizes the economic factors that go into that equation. He was able to comment on the ins and outs of volumes and how pricing for things like transportation or material acceptance might change with certain volumes, timelines, economies of scale, and capacities of partners, especially on the waste management side. We can really benefit from that kind of fluency and business acumen.”

Next Steps

Since his experience in the SEG Huddle, Evan has been working out the business and entrepreneurial components of RIMTA’s pilot project. They are determining how to charge for their service, how to bring in more partners on the waste management side, and how to work with their cement industries partners to locate additional kilns that are interested in participating. They will also be looking for funding from additional sources, such as NOAA’s Marine Debris program.

“I think Rhode Island is one of the reasons this project has succeeded overall. We are this little laboratory and we have great settings for experimentation and for trying things that might not work elsewhere.”

“We would love to see Rhode Island lead on this and become the first state with a fiberglass boat recycling program,” he says. “With the Huddle, SEG gave us a great opportunity to give a goal-oriented, focused presentation on where we intend to go in the next couple of months and over the next year and to take advantage of knowledge that’s already out there. I think Rhode Island is one of the reasons this project has succeeded overall. We are this little laboratory and we have great settings for experimentation and for trying things that might not work elsewhere. I hope this is just the start of a larger conversation, not only with the folks who were in the room that day but with SEG moving forward. We can benefit from all the outlets they provide to share our progress and see what comes to the surface.”

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