Albert Willemsen was educated as an engineer. In the 1970s, he started working in the aerospace industry in his native country, the Netherlands. Somehow he’s gone from that beginning – an engineer focused on the sky – to being an environmental expert focused on the sea.
In the early 1980s, he found himself working in the automotive sector. And it wasn’t until late in that decade that he started working in boating. “Step-by-step, I am more involved with environmental issues,” he said. I am an engineer – a qualified engineer. But somebody has to do it. And I did.”
He began working with ICOMIA (International Council of Marine Industry Associations) around that time and has since become the council’s environmental manager. In this role, he tends to be focused largely on new legislation, and coordinating between industry and government. Often times, governments tend to re-create something that already exists elsewhere, or that conflicts with what other governments have done, which can be especially frustrating for companies that work internationally and have to navigate the maze of international regulations.
ICOMIA tries to simplify the equation for its members, by offering continuously updated information that cross-references the different regulations across the board – in a way offering a global perspective.
OnboardOnline talked with Willemsen recently about the most pressing environmental issues, how the industry can deftly and effectively respond, and whether or not it will break the bank.
OnboardOnline: At the moment we’re constantly seeing information on various environmental problems, and so it can be hard sometimes to focus on what’s most pressing. So, in your opinion, what are the most pressing problems?
Albert Willemsen: “The most important items that we are dealing with at this time are really emissions to air, emissions to water and, let’s say, waste in materials. Waste in the use of materials and the substances inside materials. Because on the international level, for example, one of the materials that in 2008 the U.S. started with special regulations on illegal timber. In 2011, Australia followed. In 2010, the European Commission, through the European Union, adopted similar regulations and those came in force last week.
“So if you take, for example, the difference between these pieces of legislations, that means it’s quite difficult if you’re working internationally. So for someone who is, let’s say, based in South Florida who wants to export to Europe, he has to consider not only the U.S. regulations but the European regulations, as well. And they’re not quite the same.”
OO: This is a recurring theme – the need to more uniform regulations and standards across the board…
AW: “That’s, I’d say, if you look at what’s the most difficult part for us, we need international regulations – an international approach. Because it’s fine having environmental regulations – it’s good for the future, it’s good for humans, for humanity, etc., etc. But still we are working in an international business, and let’s say the boatyards are not based only in the Netherlands, but in several parts of the world. That’s the reason I’m always stressing that we need, more or less, a universal approach which is not always easy and possible.”
OO: The question is always who would take the lead on that – the United Nations?
AW: “In some ways, yes, they are. But, as well, the IMO – in fact, the maritime part of the UN.”
OO: You started off working in the aerospace industry – right?
AW: “Yes – that was a long time ago. The great difference between testing planes in the U.S. and the Netherlands, is that we have in the Netherlands one of the most densely populated areas in Europe. Do that means that you need to be careful with the fuels and environment, and health and safety rules.”
OO: And you were an engineer, also. How did you go from an engineer dealing with the sky to an environmental expert dealing largely with the water?
AW: “So my first experience, even though I am an engineer, was related to the environment on the moment you are testing equipment in planes. You have to test sound, you have to test emissions, also the danger and safety issues around it – especially with fuels and all that stuff. And then later on, when I got started in the automotive and the boating industry – and I’m talking about 30 or 35 years ago – then they asked me to focus myself a little bit more on the environment for the boating industry, which I have done. So, step by step, I am more involved with environmental issues. I am an engineer – a qualified engineer. But somebody has to do it. And I did.”
OO: You’ve pretty much been involved from the time environmental awareness first came into the public consciousness.
AW: “Around the 70s, I was focused from the mid-70s to the 80s on aerospace; in the early 80s I started in the automotive; and the late 80s I started in boating…And at that particular time, most of the environmental focus was on waste, and wastewater…And I mean point-source pollution.”
OO: What have you learned in that time? How have you changed your approach in order to be more effective?
AW: “One of the things we have to consider very clearly is that the user is not an environmental expert. So we can consider all kinds of regulations, legislations, all kinds of environmental regulations, legislations, rules and measures; but in the end, it is the users who have to use them and be willing to use them. So you have to explain to them very clearly and very carefully, and not be pushing them when you say: ‘That’s not the right way.’
“But at the same time, tell them also, if the environment is maintained in a good condition, it’s less costly to them using the boat. For example, when the materials are polluted, you have to pay a lot of money. When it’s clean, you can dump them in different sites for less costs – meaning you have less operational costs, and meaning you have to pay less for moving operations. It’s improving the quality, it’s improving the environment, and at the same time you can reduce a lot of costs.”
OO: So, educating the public about why these changes are necessary – not just telling them they are necessary.
AW: “Yeah. It’s really necessary. And there is a difference, of course. If you look at the environmental regulations based on the product – the boat and the equipment – then it’s completely in line with what we said to each other about the user.
“If you are looking at the production processes and facilities of the shipyards and boat-builders and R&M yards, because then it’s a different case, because then it’s up to the shipyard or the boat-builder to take all kinds of measures that are needed…
“There is a difference if you have a regulation base that’s focused on products. For example, I told you about illegal timber – timber is a material and from that material you’re producing a product. But there is also environmental regulation focused on the production facilities. So, for example, woodshop and or paint applications means a lot of emissions to the air. But that’s inside of the facility of the shipyard or the boat-builder, and that’s a different story. Then you are talking about environmental legislations with the responsibility on the shipyard and the managers and the staff of the shipyard.
“So there are two different items – one is about the facilities and the production and maintenance; and the other is related to the products used, which is about the boat itself and the equipment on board.”
OO: So those are the two main areas of focus for regulators?
AW: “And the third one – marinas – is in between. The user is operating his boat inside the marina and using the facilities of the marina, and the marina operator is responsible for the facilities inside the marina but partly responsible for the activities of the users. Special marinas should pay attention to education of the users.”
OO: What are the best and easiest ways for shipyards and boat-builders to reduce their impact on the environment?
AW: “Inside of the materials you are using, there are a lot of substances. One item is very, very important on an international level – it doesn’t matter where you are. I see it in Europe. I see it in the U.S.
“I noticed that if you are using any kind of material or equipment, you have to make sure that that particular material can be reused; or, if it’s not at all possible to be reused, then it has to be recycled; if that is not possible, then if you are dumping it as waste then it should have no harm to the environment.
“That means that all the designs for boats and yachts – superyachts included – has to be considering that a yacht can only use materials from the normal list of the IMO [International Maritime Organisation]. That is to say: materials that are approved by the United Nations.
“And what I’m seeing now that equipment suppliers have to deliver a material declaration form…You have to fulfil and be in compliance with this particular law. So what we are doing right now at ICOMIA – although we are not forced to do it, but we do it anyway – is we have set a scheme, and we are set to launch the scheme in the summertime for all the equipment manufacturers. If they are setting up and developing new equipment, that they are automatically in compliance with this piece of legislation. So we would inform them that the list on priority hazardous substances, which they are not allowed to use. And this is a list in which we advise you not to use these hazardous materials, and what is not on the list you can use it freely.”
OO: Since there are already so many different standards, is it a list compiling materials based on the U.S. and E.U.? Or how do you come to it?
AW: “It’s even more than that. It’s related to all the flag states of IMO. It means that it’s more than just the U.S. and Europe; it’s really international. And something ICOMIA will do is to check this list every three months. So the list is coming – the materials on this list are coming – from IMO.
“But small boats and or yachts, they don’t have to follow the scheme at this moment. But that will come. That’s why we advise them to please follow the scheme. But often it’s a matter of when the legislation will be enforced on small boats as well. It’s good because some of the components you can use them again, and some of the components you can recycle. And why not? Because there’s a shortage of materials. If you look, there’s a shortage of materials worldwide. But I don’t have to tell anybody that…
“And if you can recycle all the materials, and you reuse it again in your industry, sometimes it’s much cheaper and much easier to do…
“Coming back to the timber, the global overview with all the legislations…then you will have a very clear example. The purpose of the law is international, but the way it is implemented in different parts of the world is different – like in Australia, like in the European Union, like in the U.S. And you understand why we need international legislation."
OO: Changing topics a bit, I was wondering why there tends to be such a focus on waterborne pollutants in Europe and on airborne pollutants in the U.S. Can you explain that?
AW: “For Europe, it’s quite clear to answer this. In Europe – especially in the western parts of Europe – you have a lot of rivers which flow through there and those are very important for European countries for drinking water. So, the population in Europe is depending on the supply of good quality water in the main rivers, and that’s an influence on the quality of the drinking water. And especially if you look at areas with the most dense populations – say, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and the western parts of France, even in Britain.
“So that’s the reason. And also the dense population in these areas. Fifty per cent of the European population is living between 1 and 50 miles from the coastline. So, if there’s something happening with the quality of the rivers, then obviously that’s having an impact on the drinking water. That’s why there’s so much effort on water-related legislation in Europe.
“In the U.S., you have less dense populations – except, of course, for some areas like New York City and Washington, D.C. But at the same time, you are focusing much more on air. If you go to the west, in California, you find the most strict air regulations in the U.S. because every morning a lot of air pollution is coming in from the ocean and enters the U.S., while California wants to have clean air. That means you put much more effort on the air.
“So that explains the difference. But at the same time, the authorities are more and more focusing on each other and exchanging information. And if you look at the engines, in this moment a great part of the marine engines’ exhaust emissions – they’ll be harmonized in 2015.”
OO: You’re saying that the governing bodies are modelling laws after laws that already exist elsewhere?
AW: “The goal of the laws is all similar, but there are differences and that can sometimes create these problems and complications. This is always my message when I attend these meetings with the European Commission. These are the authorities inside the European Union. I’m always saying: Please be aware, that sometimes they are trying to re-invent the wheel. Sometimes I say: Why are you doing this? We already have international regulations and that’s good enough. Our industry is depending on clear and healthy water. When polluted and with heavy smells, you would not like to sail in these waters. In fact, the we have the same goal as the authorities and “Green” parties, only we have a different approach on how to achieve them.”
OO: This feeds into ICOMIA’s idea that recreational boating is in harmony with maintaining clean marine environments…
AW: “My personal feeling is that recreational crafts is a perfect example for sustainable recreation. We developed sustainable production systems and facilities. At the same time, you can use the boat as a sustainable craft. Keeping the waterways, the canals, the rivers clean with holding tanks and receptacle facilities at the marinas to empty the holding tanks; it doesn’t have to be very costly or difficult. And sometimes you can integrate the waste-treatments systems for treatment of biofouling and treatment of bilgewater.
“Environmental threat Number 1: climate change. Everyone is talking about climate change. You know – related to emissions.
“The second one is related to the loss of biodiversity – all kinds of different species coming from ships, from recreational crafts, from airplanes, from all different parts of the world.”
OO: You mean the transport of invasive species…
AW: “For example, you have boats from Europe coming to the U.S. and boats from the U.S. entering Europe. And then you have all kinds of species coming in with them. For example, we found crabs coming from Japan in Germany and other parts of Europe, and at the same time, snakes from Africa in the U.S. and Florida…And these invasive species need to be prevented. To prevent that, you need to clean your hull and use good-working antifouling. But at the same time, antifouling can be bad for the environment. And so what we are doing is trying to ensure that you are using the right kind of antifouling and that when you are cleaning the hull, that you catch all the wastewater and clean it before you discharge it to the local sewage – not the surface water. And to integrate this system to avoid the waste in surface waters, you can use that system too.”
OO: Isn’t that an expensive proposition for ships that transit often between various marine environments?
AW: “It doesn’t have to be expensive. That’s the wrong message sometimes. You can use one device for receiving wastewater and the treatment of wastewater coming from washing down antifouling from hulls and bilgewater, and integrate them and use sedimentation as treatment. After eight hours, 99 per cent of the pollution is caught within these sedimentation tanks, meaning you are in compliance with U.S. rules from 1975, with the new IMO guidelines and with an extra dimension of treatment of bilgewater. This has been done within 1,200 marinas in the Netherlands and West Germany.”
OO: What does ICOMIA recommend when it comes to antifoulings? Every country seems to have its own standards…
AW: “We are following IMO very clearly. And IMO is saying copper is not dangerous. You don’t have to swallow it. I’m quite clear on that. The loss of biodiversity is worse…
“We have a lot of data. And if you look very carefully how copper emissions are reduced by the industry on an international level, then you understand that it is only possible when you adopt one calculation method for copper emissions. And that is one that was adopted by IMO, as well. And we, as ICOMIA, introduced that to several parts within the E.U. and hope to do the same in the U.S., as well. There’s a lot of misunderstanding around it.
“So, one side is that we have a very clear global emission factor, and the other side is the loss of biodiversity. So, what is worse? The copper emissions or the loss of biodiversity? And we said already, the loss of biodiversity is, worldwide, the environmental problem number two. So that’s worse than copper.
“And I can tell you honestly that on an international basis, we are working together with central authorities to compare the impact of copper to the impact of the loss of biodiversity. And when it’s finished, we will see whether copper is dangerous – yes or no? Whether the loss of biodiversity is worse – yes or no? And you have to do it….and this is one of the items I would like to discuss with the EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency]…
“What I am saying is that the impact of the loss of biodiversity is greater than the impact of using copper biocides within antifouling coatings.”
OO: The argument being that the threat of a continued loss of biodiversity is much more pressing than copper emissions in water…
AW: “We want to make sure. We want clear evidence and that’s the reason why we set up this study. But if you go to a lot of parts of Europe, if you go to a lot of parts of the Caribbean, you will find a lot of marinas where they have a lot of problems with the loss of biodiversity. This is one of the big, big problems.
“And a lot of marinas don’t understand because they are not informed and or trained with the topic. And you can understand that the United Nations and the International Maritime Organisation has set rules on the loss of biodiversity…These are international rules – not our rules. And shipping is one of the main causes, and recreational crafts as well. So what they have done is set up rules for recreational crafts and rules for shipping – and shipyards are included in shipping. Everything above 25m [82 ft].”
OO: What about the increased engine efficiency that the IMO is requiring?
AW: “I have to be very careful what I say on this…But around June, we want to present something to the industry very clearly, with some evidence on this and marine manufacturers and boat-builders and shipyards are working together on this.”