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Upcycling your Recycling - Brother from another Mother

by John Curnow, Editor, Sail World AUS 22 Dec 2023 21:00 UTC
Remember to duck! Quarter Tonner broach © Sam Penhaul-Smith

Thank you. You have catapulted this thread's two other siblings into the outstanding category. Upcycling your Recycling, and then a little later on, Upcycling your Recycling - Sister from another Mister looked at conversions of a Volvo 70 mould, and a famous TP52, respectively.

Now when we first got wind of this, our note back to the team in question was pretty clear. It simply said, "In some ways, it looks like you have cracked sailing's version of cold nuclear fusion. Well done."

If the other articles were about the vessels themselves, then this third member of the triumvirate looks at the engine room. The sails. Only thing is, this is not so much about converting sails to bags or skipper's briefing wallets from worn out rags, as it is about extracting the very fibres, and even resin that went into making said 'engines'.

This is no mere greenwashing either, for yes it most certainly about avoiding landfill, but even more crucially, it is about returning said materials back for re-manufacture into yet another set of rags to keep powering on. Eureka. Is this not alchemy, even?

Sailing itself is green, and yes timber and aluminium boats have an afterlife, but we don't really build a lot of race boats from those materials any more. We are also at the precipice of the end-of-life era for a large mass of GRP craft, and we won't even get into those that are black at their core...

At a time when there are places where used wind farm blades are being buried in plastic coffins so as to hide them from prying satellite eyes, here is a real chance to complete a loop. The very characteristics, like strength and longevity we have been so blessed to enjoy from modern rags can go full circle and continue to give on. Talk about paying it forward!

Powered by you

Now before we travel much further, our thanks must firstly go to Sail-World reader Simon for alerting us to the programme in the first place. Next, let's introduce Joe and Sam Penhaul-Smith who have created, Sustainable Sailing, which owns the tech.

Sam said, after our e-introductions, "We believe it is a significant step forward for the industry. We are keen to show people it is possible to recycle these sorts of materials. There is a small bit we don't want to share because of the IP, but it doesn't change the outcome here.

"In terms of taking the tech forwards, we have put together business plans to be able to take this to investors and build the business so that it will be available to all sailmakers. Ideally, we would work with all sailmakers to be able to provide a service for them, all along with other classes and individuals."

So what are we talking about in terms of the big picture. Well, something like 2000 tonnes (13 million square metres) of sails are produced each year. They are a mix of blended polymers and composites, so not exactly easy to deal with at the other end of the lifecycle.

Interestingly, something like 2000 tonnes of sail cloth is dumped or incinerated every year in the world because of a lack of recycling options, so sailing hardly racks up the points there.

Equally, 99% of sails go to landfill or storage, and just 1% become bags, folders, and jackets. Interestingly - and somewhat mercifully - there is a growing demand for recycled polymers and composites.

You spin me right round baby, right round...

Dr Joe Penhaul-Smith then added, "We identified the DeeCom technologies from our earlier work in the green chemistry space, and the process can be optimised to produce clean carbon fibres, without any drop in tensile strength. In other words, as good as the original fibres that went into the sail's construction in the first place. We can also recover the primary resin monomers from the same recycling process. Currently, this is to 84% purity, but this material does have an intrinsic value."

Joe went on to say, "The carbon footprint to build a suit of 40ft race boat sails is enormous (34kg per 1kg of carbon fibre sail cloth). This is the equivalent of about three people flying from London to New York, or about half the average carbon footprint a citizen of the UK for an entire year."

"DeeCom produces carbon fibres at a similar or lower carbon footprint than pyrolysis, while also recovering valuable resin monomers, and the latter is done at a similar carbon footprint as synthesis from petrochemicals."

Spin your propellerhead a bit, if you like, but the main game is answered thus: "Given we can recover fibres as good as virgin, there is nothing theoretically to prevent us from producing panels as good as virgin fibres, either." Boom. Drop mike moment right there!

So it is not just about Dyneema and carbon, but Dacron and Mylar, too. The main takeaways are that not all of it will be suitable for sails, but what is left is of high value elsewhere in industry. Equally, there is a lower carbon footprint to make it so Mr Sulu, and possibly a 50% reduction in end-of-life footprint, as well. I guess you can understand that we have been pretty inspired by all of this, and will be definitely covering each and every tack Sustainable Sailing will take.

Go forth and conquer!

Not just a lab. Real world. It IS happening as we speak. Sam said, "We have a pilot program in collaboration with Winning Sails, who build sails for the Illusion class in the UK. As the sails are 100% recyclable, they can either drop their old sails at a collection point here in Cowes, or they can arrange a collection to ship the sails straight to our facility.

"We are starting this on a small scale so that we can really work with the customers who are looking to recycle their sails to find out what works for them and how we can make it easier for them. It is really great to have Winning Sails so keen to collaborate with us on this."

"The other project that is starting up is North Sails are putting a recycling bin in their Gosport loft to collect waste and track how much they are throwing away. We will then collect their waste and recycle it once there is enough. We are hoping that this can be rolled out to all of the North Sails lofts in time."

Joe finished by commenting, "While there are recycling technologies for some of the plastics used to build some sails, none of these operate in the marine industry, due to the blended plastic nature of the sails on the market, which can chemically 'poison' a number of recycling processes. Our closed-loop recycling system for end-of-life sails will recover the building blocks of these plastics, in a truly sustainable solution."

You know, the EU is currently looking at legislation to make the producers of textiles responsible for the entire life of their products. Given the fast-fashion nature of that industry today, this cannot come soon enough. In that market, clothing and footwear alone account for 5.2 million tonnes of waste, which is equivalent to 12 kg of waste per person, per year. Taking into account the half-life and leaching aspects of that is enough to turn you off your dinner.

Sailing has, and continues to thrive on its green credentials, and the work of the Penhaul-Smiths will elevate this to new heights of credibility, to say the least. Nice one. Cheers to that. Got to be one hell of a way to finish the year out...

Best wishes to all. May you have a safe, happy, and joyous festive season. May your racing in State, National, World titles, and that wee thing called the Hobart be even more of a buzz!

OK. There it is. There is so much more on the group's websites for you. Simply use the search field, or 'edition' pull-down menu up the top on the right of the masthead to find it all. Please enjoy your yachting, stay safe, and thanks for tuning into

John Curnow
Editor, Sail World AUS

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