Study reveals alarming level of waste fibreglass in marine life

Improper disposal of fibreglass boats leads to widespread contamination of marine ecosystems, with new research revealing alarming levels in shellfish.

Plastic-hulled boat sunken on the sea bedA groundbreaking study conducted by researchers from the Universities of Brighton and Portsmouth has uncovered worrying levels of fibreglass contamination in oysters and mussels. This marks the first time that glass reinforced plastic (GRP) particles, commonly used in boat manufacturing, have been detected entering the food chain.

The study, published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, found GRP particles in the soft tissues of oysters and mussels collected near an active boatyard in Chichester Harbour, a popular sailing destination in South England. Using micro Raman spectroscopy, researchers detected up to 11,220 fibreglass particles per kilogram in oysters and 2,740 particles per kilogram in mussels.

Based on the typical weight of an oyster consumed being 20 grams and a mussel about 7.5 grams, the implication is that there could be up to approximately 225 GRP particles in an oyster and 20 in a mussel that’s eaten.

Dr Corina Ciocan, Principal Lecturer in Marine Biology from the University of Brighton, commented on the significance of the discovery: "Our findings show a disturbing level of GRP contamination in marine life. This study is the first of its kind to document such extensive contamination in natural bivalve populations. It's a stark reminder of the hidden dangers in our environment."

The research highlights the risks associated with the widespread use of GRP in boat manufacturing since the 1960s. While valued for its durability, GRP is notoriously difficult to dispose of properly, often leading to abandonment or improper disposal. This results in tiny glass particles entering the water, especially during peak boat maintenance seasons.

According to a report in 2019, there are approximately six million recreational boats in the EU, with about 140,000 due for scrapping each year. There were an estimated 16.5 million recreational vessels in the United States in 2012.

The study reveals that bivalves, being stationary filter feeders, are highly susceptible to accumulating these particles. The ingestion of GRP can interfere with their digestive systems, leading to physiological stress and potentially death. This not only affects marine life but could also have significant implications for human health, given that these bivalves often end up on our plates.

Professor Fay Couceiro from the University of Portsmouth highlighted the global nature of this issue: "It's a worldwide problem, particularly for island nations with limited landfill space. Efforts are being made to find viable disposal solutions, but more needs to be done to prevent at-sea dumping and onshore burning."

Typical disposal methods for end-of-life boats are currently not very circular. Landfilling remains the most common approach due to its economic viability, despite growing environmental concerns and space limitations (Composites Recycling: Where are we now?). Alternative techniques such as mechanical recycling, pyrolysis, and solvolysis are being explored, but face challenges in scalability and economic feasibility (Current status of recycling of fibre reinforced polymers: Review of technologies, reuse and resulting properties).

The lack of specific global legislation for GRP boat disposal compounds the problem. However, some countries are taking initiative. France, for example, is implementing an "eco-tax" on newly registered boats from 2019 to fund disposal efforts.

The consequences of this contamination are not yet fully understood, but the potential for widespread ecological impact is significant. The study advocates for further research to understand the potential transfer up the food chain and the implications for human health.

Dr Ciocan stressed the urgent need for better regulation and management of GRP disposal: "We must improve public access to slipways and commercial boat maintenance facilities. Creating a better ethos around end-of-life boat management is crucial to minimise further exposure and spread of these contaminants."

As the issue continues to grow, with predictions of peak disposal needs in some areas by 2025-2030, there is an urgent call for comprehensive strategies combining legislation, funding mechanisms, and technological advancements to address this mounting environmental challenge.

The findings highlight a growing issue that may require closer attention on the part of environmental regulators. Professor Couceiro concluded: "We have to address this issue head-on to protect our marine ecosystems and ensure a healthier future for our oceans."

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