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New lease of life for tonnes of disused sails

Tonnes of disused sails bound for landfill are to be given a new lease of life with a project that aims to create a recycling process using green chemistry and biotechnology.

The project is a collaboration between start-up company Sustainable Sailing, the Illusion one design keelboat class and the sail training centre of the Royal Hospital School and will involve a recycling scheme for old sails.

Around 2,000 tonnes of sail cloth are dumped or incinerated every year in the world because of a lack of recycling options.

The new sail recycling technology that has been developed relies on advances in green chemistry and biotechnology to break down sails into their chemical building blocks, without problematic solvents.

A sail recycling scheme is being developed by Sustainable Sailing. Photo courtesy Illusion Class
A sail recycling scheme is being developed by Sustainable Sailing. Photo courtesy Illusion Class

The building blocks can then be put together to become new sails or incorporated into other high value products.

“There has been no solution for the huge amount of sails that are landfilled every year,” said Dr Joe Penhaul-Smith, founding director of Sustainable Sailing. “Plastics used to make these sails eventually break down and can escape from landfill and cause harm to the environment.

“While upcycling by cutting sails up and using them to make bags and jackets is possible, only about 1% of all sails are currently upcycled into alternate products. Upcycling does not solve the challenge of end-of-life sail cloth, it just pushes the problem down the road for the lifetime of the garment because we cannot keep turning these items into other products more than once.”

Refining and improving

Dr Joe points out that there are recycling technologies for some of the plastics used to build some sails, however so far none of these are used 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.

Initially the scheme is being run as a pilot project with plans to scale up to cover all types of dinghy, yacht, windsurfing and kitesurfing sails as the systems are refined and improved.

The Illusion class sail maker, Winning Sails, has been collaborating with Sustainable Sailing since Sustainable Sailing’s inception.

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