Maybe you had a seamanship disaster and your boat sunk, maybe you ran E15 fuel through the engine and ruined it forever, or maybe the years have taken a toll and your boat’s simply all worn out. If it doesn’t have enough value to sell on the open market, it might be time to contact your local boat salvage yard and find an environmentally friendly way to dispose of it. We mention the “environmentally friendly” part right up front, because the idea of abandoning or sinking a boat doesn’t just run afoul of the law, it’s also a serious environmental hazard. Fuel tanks, chemicals, and batteries all need special treatment, and abandoning or sinking a boat intentionally shouldn’t ever so much as enter the mind of any responsible boater.
How to Dispose of Used Boats
Consider the advice of Harbor Salvage, which offers boat disposal services in the Chesapeake Bay and surrounding areas: “If you think your boat has any value, your best choice is to sell it. If you think it has no value left, or you’ve tried to sell it and have not been able to, then contact us.” Or consider the offer from Trashcan Willys, which removes junk boats (and just about anything else) in New England and charges for boat removal: If there are any items of value that go with the boat, they may choose to discount the price of hauling the boat away. Some other outfits, like BoatDump.com, will remove a boat for free or pay cash for “some boats 1995 or newer,” but then charge fees based on missing boat parts that would be of salvage value, such as engines or drive units.
Boat Salvage Yards
To a boat owner, the most surprising fact about disposing of your used boat at a boat salvage yard is probably the fact that the yard isn’t likely to pay you much – if anything. In fact, many outfits will charge a fee just to remove it from your property or a marina. The truth of the matter is that fiberglass hulls essentially never die. There are so many boats out there which would cost more to fix than they’re worth, that boat salvage operations often have their hands full merely keeping up with the flow of boats that people are willing to pay to get rid of.
There are also numerous used boat shops across the nation that may be willing to pay bottom-dollar for an old boat if they think it might hold potential for a refit and then resale. If you can haul your boat to them on its own trailer you stand a fair chance of getting a buck or two for that old rig – after all, if you can bring it to them, that means the trailer’s roadworthy and that alone has some value.
Unfortunately, most of these boat salvage yards operate on low margins and they know darn well that if the boat was sellable as-is, you would have already sold it. So you have to expect to get paid at the very bottom end of the market value. And don’t be surprised if a boat salvage yard tells you that you can un-hitch it and leave it without any cash changing hands, or just hit the road again.
Boat salvage yards are usually a more or less temporary resting spot for a fiberglass boat. Most of the hulls that go to salvage yards eventually end up at a landfill, once they’ve been stripped of every useful part. When boats have out-lived their useful lifespan and aren’t of interest even to a salvage outfit for stripping, disposing of them usually comes down to one of four options:
- Donating the boat
- Taking the boat to a landfill
- Recycling the boat
- Giving it away
Donating a Boat
Donating a boat is a fairly common way to dispose of a used boat. In fact, there are several 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations that specialize in taking old boat donations, such as the Boat Angel
(the proceeds go to a number of charities), or CharityBoats.org,
(which supports the GivingCenter.org). Many people go this route since it often allows you to take a tax deduction. Whether or not you get to write off the donation and just what that amounts to actually depends on what the organization does with the boat after you donate it. If the boat gets renovated and sells for increased value, you can deduct that amount, which may be a lot more than the boat’s initial value when you originally donated it.
Wherever you live, you also may have the option of supporting a local cause. Many maritime museums, scholarship programs, and other organizations take boat donations then sell the boats to raise funds. You should recognize, however, that in these cases a boat does need to have some level of worth. If the boat’s completely valueless, the donation will probably be turned down.
Another option for donating a boat may be through a local vocational program. Some schools have boat repair or engine repair programs, and they need willing patients to work on. The demand for boats for this use is usually quite low (a single boat or maybe two will keep a vocational program busy for the entire semester), however, what they’re looking for are boats that have a strong foundation to build on. If a hull is structurally sound but the boat looks awful, has severe engine damage, and is essentially valueless, this is one way you may be able to give it a new lease on life and help your local school at the same time.
Taking the Boat to a Landfill
Just how good or bad an option this may be in your case depends on a number of factors including where you live, how big the boat is, and whether or not it has any potentially hazardous materials aboard. In most cases, things like fuel tanks and batteries must be removed, prior to disposal. In some counties, you can bring boats up to a certain length to the landfill, and in others, you may need to chainsaw it into smaller sections in order for the landfill to accept it. Some will charge a fee for this sort of boat disposal (figure an average of about five dollars a foot), while in other cases it will be free. Unfortunately, while this may solve your immediate problem of what to do with that old boat, it’s not an excellent option for the environment.
In some cases, you may not even need to get the boat to the landfill itself. California, for example, has a Vessel Turn-In Program
that was designed to prevent people from abandoning boats improperly. If you bring your boat to a state agency (police departments, publicly-owned marinas, and Harbor Departments are all on the list) and sign over your ownership interest, the state will take your problem off your hands for you.
Just how big a problem is abandoned boats? The state of Florida alone has around 1,500 to deal with at any given time, and according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, there are around 350 active derelict boat cases in an average year. When hurricanes strike the state, that number spikes dramatically. And remember, abandoned boats can have a big impact on the environment as well as causing navigational hazards – old boats need to be disposed of properly.
Recycling a Boat
Fiberglass is not an easy material to recycle, and it’s only one of the materials found in a boat. Metals, plastics of all sorts, vinyl, foams, coring materials, wood, and composites of all sorts may not only be present but may also be laminated into the fiberglass itself. For this reason, the vast majority of the boats disposed of in the U.S. end up in a landfill.
The technology does exist to recycle a boat but it’s very expensive and time-consuming. The Florida-based recycling company Eco-Wolf has developed grinders that are capable of pulverizing the fiberglass while maintaining the fiber’s integrity so it can be reconstituted and injected into a resin spray system. But before this process can even begin, the issues of transporting the boat to the site and stripping it of foreign materials have to be resolved.
Rhode Island recently initiated a pilot program called the Rhode Island Fiberglass Recycling Pilot Project, sponsored by the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association in partnership with the Rhode Island Sea Grant (https://seagrant.gso.uri.edu/), Rhode Island Resource Recovery (https://www.rirrc.org/) and Geocycle (https://www.geocycle.com/).
The experiment aims to determine the cost and long-term feasibility of fiberglass recycling using a combination of thermal and chemical “co-processing.” Heat applied in an inert atmosphere can be used to recover the polymers as an oil, while chemicals separate the resin from the fiber after granulation. Unfortunately, the process is expensive.
High capital investment and a low assurance of returns are why businesses and projects like these are so rare. Although reconstituted fiberglass can be used as an additive for FRP products ranging from boats to fence posts, there’s not much of a market for it. And those grinders Eco-Wolf makes the cost about $100,000 apiece, so recycling companies don’t want to invest in them until they know there’s a market for the end product. That market is difficult to develop because on the flip side of the coin, companies don’t want to experiment with and commit to using that end product until they know there’s a consistent, reliable source.
Europe is farther along than the United States when it comes to boat recycling, and there are boat recycling outfits in France, Norway, Denmark, and Spain. But even there it’s still more expensive to recycle the fiberglass than the end product is worth. In fact, according to presenters at the Future of Yacht Recycling conference held in Amsterdam, an average 32-foot boat ends up costing about 1,500 Euros ($1,660) to recycle.
Giving a Boat Away
There’s a time-honored tradition among boat owners of parking a used boat at the end of the driveway with a “for free” sign on it, and simply giving away a boat they don’t intend on fixing up. This may work sometimes, but again, part of the problem with this practice is that there are just so many old, used-up boats out there. In fact, anyone can find a free boat with a quick visit to free classified ad listings websites.
Unfortunately, most boats with little to no value don’t have operational engines – and most people who are interested in a free boat don’t have the funds to buy a new motor. The best opportunity for giving a boat away probably exists if you know a friend who might be interested in it. You can try the old “for free” sign and see if you get any bites, but be prepared to develop a Plan B if the boat sits there, perpetually unclaimed.
What to do with old, worn-out boats is a significant problem, one which the marine industry has been trying to solve since the early fiberglass models began wearing out. But even today, modern trends toward recycling haven’t solved the problem. And unfortunately, the chances are that your old worn out pride and joy will end up in a boat salvage yard and after that, a landfill.
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