We've all heard about old metal car bodies being melted down for recycling, but what happens to the composite hulls and superstructures of past-their-prime recreational boats? Well, not much. Generally, they just end being sunk, burned, or put in a scrapyard. Sometimes, the composites are ground up and added as filler to virgin material. An alternative may be on the way, however, as researchers have discovered a new method for separating the composite components for future reuse.

Many composite boat parts are made from cross-linked polyester and fiberglass, as the combination results in a light yet strong material. The molecular bonds between the two substances are very strong, which makes it difficult to separate them - good for crashing through waves, but not so good for recycling.

Three years ago, Norwegian recycling company Veolia joined forces with SINTEF Materials and Chemistry, the Norwegian Composite Association, the Reichhold composite company, and Nordboat, in a project aimed at finding a way around that challenge. The project would also evaluate the feasibility of collecting, dismantling, and transporting cast-off recreational boats, in order that they could be recycled.

SINTEF has since devised an unspecified chemical process, which is reportedly quite effective at separating cross-linked polyester and fiberglass for reuse. "The level of usability varies from property to property, but is around 80 per cent," said SINTEF research director Fabrice Lapique. "And best of all is that the process is easy to implement in an industrial context. Within two hours, more than 80 per cent of the material has been dissolved and the temperature during the process does not exceed 220 degrees [428F]."

Challenges remain before a recycling system can be widely implemented, however. Scientists from Reichhold, for instance, have brought up the possibility of complications arising from the presence of separate core materials in the boat parts. An infrastructure for transporting old boats to recycling facilities also still needs to be established.

Such an initiative wouldn't be unprecedented, however, as Trek bicycles recently began a program for recycling carbon fiber bicycle parts.