Home . Articles . News . Technique . Boatyard Recycling

Boatyard Recycling

2009 November 2

You may be surprised to learn that more of your boat trash can find a useful second life

A n oil change aboard Sonata, the Pearson 36 cutter I lived aboard with my wife Liz during an extended cruise, was always a chore. I had an oil extraction pump that made the job a little easier, but it was still messy.

Changing the oil filter was even worse. As soon as I loosened the filter, oil leaked out and dripped onto the rags I placed underneath it. The used filter got dumped into a recycled plastic grocery bag, and then I put it and the oily rags in the marina Dumpster. Of course, I brought the oil to the marina's used oil sump, a 50-gallon drum in the rear of the engine repair building. I had to pay for the privilege, too.

If you've tossed oily rags and used oil filters into a trash container, then you're among the many sailors like me who unwittingly don't do what's best for the environment. It's easy to just throw oily rags, used oil filters, rollers saturated with bottom paint, broken electronics, and virtually anything else in the trash, but just because it's easy doesn't make it right.

As boat owners, we deal with plenty of materials that are toxic and hazardous to the environment: bottom paint, paint thinner, cleaning solvents, oil and fuel, to name just a few. And we deal with plenty of materials that can and should be recycled: oil, oil filters, batteries, shrink wrap, those big blue tarps, antifreeze, electronics and even sails, to name just a few. It takes a bit of effort, but effective measures to sail green and to recycle unwanted or outdated materials and gear is a win-win for the environment.

Throughout this article you will find references to taking materials to certified recyclers. You can find out more about how to dispose of hazardous waste from your local solid or hazardous waste authority or from your marina. But for other items, like electronics, for example, go to Earth911's Web site (www.earth911.com). This is a great resource for locating recyclers near you.

Oil and filters
When changing the oil, an oil extraction pump is well worth the money. It reduces the mess and makes it easy to dump the oil at the marina's designated oil collection site. Used oil can be recycled. Many marinas have arrangements with used oil recyclers that re-refine used oil for heating homes. The process requires between 50 and 80 percent less energy than refining virgin oil. If your marina doesn't dispose of its oil through a recycler, consider taking your used oil to a collection service that does. Large automotive shops often work with used oil recyclers.

Oil filters can be recycled as well. They are typically made of steel, a valuable material. According to a report from the BoatUS Foundation, if all oil filters sold annually in the United States were recycled, it would yield enough steel to make 160,000 new cars.

Obviously, 12-volt batteries are recycled. When you bring an old one into the store, you generally receive a credit against the cost of the new one. You should never just throw a battery away as it contains lead and dangerous chemicals. Most new batteries are made from at least some recycled materials from old batteries.

Taking steps to prolong the life of your batteries is good for the environment. Batteries self-discharge over time, unless they are recharged periodically, which shortens battery life. Running batteries flat also shortens battery life. Installing a smart battery charger or using solar panels if your boat is on a mooring will prolong battery life and reduce the need to recycle old batteries.

Most of us now use the more environmentally friendly nontoxic propylene glycol, the pink stuff, in the closed-cooling systems in our auxiliary engines. While it is said that the pink stuff is safe enough to ingest (I wouldn't try it!), after it's used in an engine it can pick up heavy metals and other hazardous materials, which is why marinas treat it as hazardous waste. Antifreeze can actually be reconditioned and then reused. There are recyclers that do this.

Shrink-wrap and old tarps
Most boatyards that provide shrink-wrapping services send the used plastic wrap to recyclers. In fact, many boatyards don't allow you to shrink-wrap your own boat because of the disposal problems associated with used shrink-wrap in the spring. However, if you do shrink-wrap your own boat, check out Dr. Shrink, a leading shrink-wrap company (www.dr-shrink.com). It has a recycling program.

When your old blue tarp finally bites the dust, don't throw it away. Take it to a plastics recycler near you.

Expired flares
Over the years, I acquired quite a collection of flares aboard Sonata. Fortunately, I never had to find out the hard way if the old ones would work! When the expiration date passed, I bought new flares and kept the old ones. Most of us do that, but eventually you'll have so many old flares that you've got to get rid of them somehow. If fireworks are legal in your state, it may also be legal to shoot off your flares in a safe location. Check with your local police, fire department or Coast Guard station. Local officials will also be able to provide advice on what to do with old flares if you can't legally fire them. Old flares don't belong in trash bins, for obvious reasons.

While it's not a pleasant topic, human waste can be recycled with a composting marine head (see SAILING, January 2008). These heads are simple, easily installed and ideal for smaller boats that are used only on weekends during the sailing season. The solid waste is separated from the liquid waste, and over time anaerobic action turns it to bacteria-free compost that can be spread on shrubs (not on vegetable gardens, though).

You may have heard that computers contain a veritable cocktail of dangerous substances. The lead in cathode ray tubes, the mercury in switches, and the cadmium in circuit boards and semiconductors are just a few of the harmful ingredients that go into a computer. The electronics on your boat are also loaded with nasty stuff that shouldn't end up in a landfill. Incidentally, your bilge pump switch may contain mercury, making it hazardous for the environment if you simply throw it out. Recycling of electronics is on the rise, so there may be an electronics recycler near you. Ask the manufacturer of your new electronics if they offer a recycling program.

Cans, bottles and paper
Although it's tempting to dump all trash, including empty cans and bottles, into one big onboard bag, which then ends up in the marina trash container, it's better for the environment if you sort these items. Most marinas have recycling bins for bottles, cans, newspapers and plastic. If yours doesn't, it should. And if it does, it's a shame not to use the recycling bins.

Old sails
Eventually, your sails will wear out and you'll have to replace them. The question is what do you do with the old sails? You can throw them away, but the landfills are already bursting at the seams. It's far better to recycle them.

A number of businesses and nonprofits actually want old sails. The nonprofit Sails for Sustenance (www.sailsforsustenance.org) takes donated sails, which it then sends to Haiti. Impoverished fishermen use the sails on their boats. Contact the organization for shipping details. Maine-based Sea Bags Inc. (www.seabags.com) makes totes and bags out of old sails. The company will pay for shipping old sails. It will also give you a Sea Bag or make a donation to the Sail Maine Scholarship Fund.

North Sails (www.northsails.com) has a recycling program for old sails. If you register for its Think Green, Buy Blue program, you can get a 25-percent discount on the purchase of a new sail. Ella Vickers Inc. recycles sails (www.ellavickers.com) and turns them into bags, grocery bags and backpacks. Contact the company for details on recycling your old sails.
More information

The following Web sites contain useful information about green boating products and practices. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a number of Web pages dedicated to clean water and environmentally friendly boating (www.epa.gov). Just type Boating into the search box. Also check out the BoatUS Foundation (www.boatus.com/foundation/cleanwater) and Discover Boating (www.discoverboating.com). Green Boat Stuff has great green products and gear (www.greenboatstuff.com). The Web site for the nonprofit Green Boating has excellent links related to green boating (www.greenboating.net), while tips, products and articles related to eco-friendly boating practices can be found at www.gogreensailor.com.

Recycling isn't just about putting empties into the recycling bin at the marina. It's about a more comprehensive approach to sailing green. It may take a bit of effort, but it's well worth it if it contributes to a cleaner and safer environment.