Greener boat storage?

By Marina Schauffler | Aug 25, 2017

Before long, the recreational boating season will draw to a close and owners will batten down their craft for the winter. Many will choose the low-density polyethylene plastic better known as shrink-wrap. It works well to protect boats from the elements, but comes at a high price -- both financial and environmental. The boat owner pays the former cost; we all pay the latter.

“Disposal is problematic, to say the least,” acknowledged Susan Swanton, executive director of the Maine Marine Trades Association. Every spring, boatyards and boat owners pull tons of this plastic off watercraft, and most of it goes to landfills or incinerators.

No one has tabulated how much boat shrink-wrap gets discarded each year. But most boats require at least 15 pounds of wrap, and Maine has more than 100,000 registered, so it’s a large volume of waste.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is exploring ways to address this challenge, but DEP Environmental Specialist Elena Bertocci says there are no formal rules regarding boat wrap and no available funding. The Legislature recently created a Maine Solid Waste Diversion Grant Program to help municipalities redirect more materials into recycling, but did not allocate funds to it in the current biennial budget.

LDPE plastic can be recycled, typically into items such as composite lumber or plastic bags. Recycling shrink-wrap from boats, though, is complicated and labor-intensive; in Swanton’s words, “It’s a real challenge.” Ben Holloway, of Coastal Boatworks in Newcastle, concurs – having worked to separate the wrap for recycling since 1996, when his yard first began using it.

The plastic wrap can never touch the ground when coming off the boat, he explained, and must have all straps, vents and doors removed. It’s hard to bundle by hand, so an on-site baler may be needed. The LDPE market can get glutted in spring, Holloway said, so to get any return on the plastic, his yard tries to store enough for a trailer load (40,000 pounds), but that can take several years.

Coastal Boatworks and Maine Mobile Shrinkwrap collect the most boat shrink-wrap for recycling, each in the neighborhood of seven tons per year, according to Bertocci. Typically, they sell it to Casella Waste Systems in Scarborough.

Holloway gets little monetary return from recycling the shrink-wrap and said he keeps at it year after year because “it’s the right thing to do.” Other yard owners would participate as well, he added, but the state “is not helping out with grants, tax breaks [or] incentives.”

The DEP is starting a pilot project at the Belgrade Transfer Station encouraging boatyards to bring clean shrink-wrap there for recycling. The site will also gather LDPE from a local lumber company and other businesses that receive pallets covered in plastic. It will be a test case, Bertocci said, to see whether this can “be done in an economically feasible manner without grants.”

In the waste management hierarchy, source reduction and reuse comes before recycling. Many boat owners avoid shrink-wrap by using polyethylene or canvas tarps, which typically last for several seasons (and often can be reused later for other purposes). Swanton said some boatyards are returning to tarps as well, which work well as long as people tie them securely.

A small percentage of Maine’s cast-aside shrink-wrap finds its way to a second life half a world away. Alison McKellar, an enterprising community volunteer in Camden, collects clean, dry shrink-wrap and sends it – along with medical supplies and other donations – to NuDay Syria, a New Hampshire group that ships materials to Syria, where the shrink-wrap is used for impromptu shelters and supplemental cover.

McKellar faces the same challenges as boatyards interested in recycling – training people to keep the wrap clean and dry and finding adequate storage space. Wet shrink-wrap can ruin other humanitarian supplies in shipping, so she often has to go to extra lengths to dry out the used wrap. “People love the idea,” she said, “but it’s difficult.”

McKellar would like to see a ban on disposing of boat shrink-wrap in the waste stream, a move that could create more financial incentives for reuse and recycling. However, a disposal ban might also prompt a spike in roadside dumping.

Another approach would be to legislate an upfront “product stewardship” deposit that helps to address the full cost of this plastic over its lifecycle. Maine requires a similar deposit for paint (to cover the recycling cost of unused paint) and recently came close to adopting a deposit for mattresses.

Product stewardship legislation helps taxpayers by shifting recycling costs from municipalities to the consumers who directly benefit from the product. A modest added deposit fee might not be too onerous for boat owners, given that they already pay upward of $10 per linear foot for shrink-wrapping.

If Maine legislators want to encourage greater reuse and recycling of boat shrink-wrap, they could direct the Maine DEP to set up a system and determine a fair means of funding it. There’s a dire need for innovation and support – so that all boatyards and boat owners can do the right thing.

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Comments (2)
Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Aug 25, 2017 14:04

Recycling is the norm now and good that Camden boaters are trying to be thinking about the environment.

Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Aug 25, 2017 14:04

Recycling is the norm now and good that Camden boaters are trying to be thinking about the environment.

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