Home » Green chemistry breakthrough gives fair winds to sail recycling initiative

Green chemistry breakthrough gives fair winds to sail recycling initiative

Four dinghies sailing on the water

Tonnes of disused sails bound for landfill will be given a new lease of life thanks to a project that aims to create a recycling process using state-of-the-art green chemistry and biotechnology. Around 2,000 tonnes of sail cloth is dumped or incinerated every year in the world because of a lack of recycling options, making the sailing industry a major source of landfill material.


Now a collaboration between start-up company Sustainable Sailing, the Illusion keelboats and school and sail training centre Royal Hospital School is creating a unique and innovative recycling scheme that will allow old sails to be made new again.


This sail recycling technology relies upon recent advances in green chemistry and biotechnology to break down sails into their chemical building blocks, without problematic solvents. These building blocks can then be put together to become new sails or incorporated into other high value products.

Dr Joe Penhaul-Smith, Founding Director of Sustainable Sailing said: “There has been no solution for the huge amount of sails that are landfilled every year. 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.


“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 for sails in the class.”

The pilot project is part of a longer-term plan to scale up, to become a global solution for end-of-life sails. As these systems are refined and improved, Sustainable Sailing will be expanding their recycling service to cover all dinghy, yacht, windsurfing and kitesurfing end of life sails in the UK and globally.

Ed Sibson, Director of Sailing at Royal Hospital School, commented “It’s fabulous to see the work that Joe and his team have put into solving the problem caused by sails at the end of their life. Sustainability is very important to the Royal Hospital School, and this is a huge step forward in reducing the environmental impact of our sport.”

Sustainable Sailing was founded to develop solutions which can be used across all sail cloth types, including all those cloth types that have been stored in sheds for years. Over the past two years, Sustainable Sailing have been building their technologies to be usable for sails currently on the market, as well as historically popular sail types and the cloths of the future.


The Illusion is a one-design keelboat. These high-performance single-handed boats offer superb racing in nearly any conditions, by sailors of all weights and ages. They are particularly popular in the Solent and the class and the class sail maker: Winning Sails, has been collaborating with Sustainable Sailing since Sustainable Sailing’s inception to develop scalable recycling solutions for their sails at end-of-life.


Royal Hospital School are an established RYA Training Centre and has a fleet of more than 60 dinghies catering for every level of sailing; from beginner boats such as the RS Tera, through ILCAs and 29ers, to team racing Fireflies. The size of their fleet and the heavy use that they experience throughout the year means an end-of-life solution for these sails is vital, for the school to continue to manage its environmental footprint.


Alongside providing recycling for Royal Hospital School, any Illusion sailor who has end-of-life sails can now contact Sustainable Sailing via their sail recycling page and arrange to either drop off these sails at a collection point or have them picked up from a nominated location, with estimated costs between £15-50 depending upon sail.


If you are interested in knowing more, or partnering with Sustainable Sailing to manage your end-of-life sails, please email Sustainable Sailing.


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