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Last updated: 24 April 2024

Are Jet Skis Bad for the Environment?

Jet skis, or personal watercraft (PWC), rank high when considering their fun factor on the water. However, their environmental footprint often goes unnoticed. 

Research identifies jet skis as significant contributors to water pollution and degradation, affecting everything from water chemistry to marine life health due to emissions and noise pollution. In addition, another report highlighted that noise from jet skis is now a £760 million problem in the United States alone, emphasising the need for stricter regulations to mitigate noise pollution. 

These concerns serve as crucial indicators that it's time we scrutinise the true cost of jet skiing on both the environment and human safety.

Our exploration will cover the direct and indirect ways jet skiing, often considered a thrilling leisure activity, can be harmful beyond the potential for a jet ski crash. This approach acknowledges the complex interplay between recreational activities and environmental sustainability.  

The aim is to find a balance that respects our need for adventure and our obligation to protect natural resources. Therefore, let's delve deeper into the impact of jet skis.

What do we mean by jet ski exactly?

When talking about jet skis, we're referring to recreational water vehicles that individuals ride on rather than inside, much like a motorcycle on water. They are popular for high-speed water activities, allowing for swift and agile movement.

Originating as a trademark for a line of personal watercraft manufactured by Kawasaki, the term "Jet Ski" has since been used generically to describe any similar type of watercraft, regardless of the manufacturer.

This innovation paved the way for the water sport known today, though it has been scrutinised for its environmental impact, mainly due to its traditional two-stroke engines. It is also notorious for being less fuel-efficient and more polluting than four-stroke engines. 

These engines can discharge unburned fuel directly into the water, contributing to water pollution and potentially harming marine life. 

Environmental impact of jet skis

Jet skis, while a thrilling addition to water sports, significantly impact the environment in often overlooked ways. 

Their operation contributes to air and water pollution, with notable emissions including approximately 730 pounds (331 kg) of carbon dioxide after three hours of use. A study cited that a jet ski operating for just two hours produced as much pollution as a car driven for 130,000 miles.

These engines are inefficient and can dump up to 30% of their fuel unburned directly into the water, leading to water pollution. This unburned fuel contains harmful substances such as MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether), benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene (BTEX), which are toxic to aquatic life and can contaminate water sources. 

Additionally, jet skis emit nitrogen oxides (NOx). This greenhouse gas is 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of its warming potential, contributing to air pollution and climate change.

What is so bad about jet skis for the environment?

Jet skis contribute to environmental degradation in several ways:

  • Water pollution: Jet skis, particularly older two-stroke engine models, can release their unburned fuel mixture into the water, leading to water pollution and potential harm to aquatic ecosystems.
  • Air pollution: Jet skis can emit significant amounts of hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide, contributing to air pollution and the greenhouse effect.
  • Noise pollution: The engines of jet skis produce considerable noise, which can disturb both marine life and people enjoying the tranquillity of natural water bodies. The noise from jet skis can reach up to 115 decibels, harming human health and disturbing the peace of waterfront communities.
  • Carbon emissions: Riding a jet ski for three hours could release approximately 331 kg of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas contributing to global warming
  • Harm to marine life: Jet skis can cause direct physical harm to marine life through collisions. They also disturb habitats, especially in shallow waters where marine animals breed and feed. Jet skis' high speeds and manoeuvrability make them particularly dangerous to marine species, leading to injuries or fatalities.

What is the impact of jet skis?

Total impact per year

Globally, recreational watercraft, including jet skis, contribute to much marine or ocean pollution. While exact figures on the total annual impact of jet skis worldwide are challenging to pinpoint, studies indicate that personal watercraft are responsible for a substantial share of hydrocarbon pollution in water environments.

Impact per day

Daily, the impact of jet skis varies significantly depending on usage intensity and the number of jet skis in operation. However, a single jet ski can emit as much pollution in an hour as driving a modern car for thousands of kilometres.

Impact per usage

Each jet ski ride contributes to environmental degradation. For instance, riding a jet ski for three hours can release approximately 331 kg of carbon dioxide. Additionally, older two-stroke jet skis can discharge around 4 gallons of unburned fuel into the water during an hour of operation.

statistical understanding the environmental impact of jet skis activity

Top largest countries

The jet ski market is a significant contributor to the global economy and is dominated by a few key players, with the largest contributions coming from the United States, Japan, and Canada.

CountryLeading BrandsMarket Share (%)Annual Revenue (GBP)
United StatesSea-Doo, Yamaha, Kawasaki50 - 601.3 Billion
JapanKawasaki, Yamaha50 - 601.1 Billion
CanadaBRP (Sea-Doo)300.9 Billion

With a projected market size of approximately £1.45 billion in 2023, the industry is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.5%, reaching nearly £2.25 billion by 2030. This growth is driven by increasing disposable incomes and a rising interest in water sports and leisure activities.

By 2030, the global jet skis market is projected to reach multimillion figures, displaying an unexpected CAGR between 2024 and 2030 compared to the statistics observed in 2021.

  1. United States: The US is a significant player in the jet ski market, with 3,333 shipments. The strong culture of water sports and many lakes and coastal areas facilitate the use of PWCs. Brands like Sea-Doo and Yamaha have a significant presence here.
  2. Japan: Ranking third with 264 shipments. Yamaha and Kawasaki are two of the most recognised jet ski manufacturers globally, originating in Japan. The country's technological advancements contribute to developing a high-performance and efficient jet ski parts supply chain.
  3. Canada: Home to Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP), the manufacturer of Sea-Doo jet skis, Canada plays a crucial role in the jet ski industry both in production and innovation.
  4. Germany: Although smaller than other countries in manufacturing, Germany's contribution comes from its engineering expertise and high-quality components, often used in jet ski production.
  5. Australia: Major consumer with extensive coastal activities. Australis is a significant contributor to the jet ski and has a growing market for jet ski consumption.
  6. China: Following with 663 shipments, China's advanced technology and production scale make it a significant player in the jet ski export market

Regional Insights

  • North America: Dominates the personal watercraft market with over 60% share, driven by a strong water sports culture and high demand for recreational and sports applications.
  • Asia-Pacific: Expect significant growth due to rising disposable incomes and a growing interest in water sports, with China and India being key contributors.
  • Europe: The market is driven by increased tourism and investment in water sports, with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom holding substantial market shares.

Are jet skis toxic?

After exploring the environmental implications of jet skis, it’s pivotal to acknowledge that they emit toxic substances. 

The lack of catalytic converters meant that the exhaust gases emitted by jet skis before 2006 were more toxic and contained higher levels of pollutants. These substances could directly harm marine life and degrade water quality, affecting ecosystems and potentially human health through contaminated water sources. 

In addition, without direct fuel injection systems, older jet skis were less efficient in fuel use, leading to increased fuel consumption and, consequently, a greater volume of emissions.

However, the industry has made significant strides in reducing the environmental impact of jet skis. Modern jet skis are now equipped with more efficient four-stroke engines and direct fuel injection technology, greatly reducing emissions. The advancements in electric jet skis offer a cleaner alternative, significantly reducing emissions and noise.

Can we get rid of them?

Addressing the dangers of jet skis involves a multifaceted approach, focusing on legislation, safety measures, and education. Countries have taken varied steps to mitigate these risks:

  • The UK government is introducing legislation targeting the dangerous misuse of watercraft, including jet skis, with penalties of up to unlimited fines or two years in prison for offenders. However, this does not mandate jet ski insurance coverage for personal injury accidents or require users to wear safety clothing, obtain a license, or have insurance.
  • In contrast, Spain imposes engine restrictions, requiring all jet skis to have less than 55cc horsepower and be fitted with a remote control cut-out. Additionally, users must receive operational instructions.
  • Greece goes further by prohibiting jet ski rental to anyone under 18. A driver’s license and registration are mandatory for operation.

These regulations reflect a growing recognition of the need for stricter controls over jet ski usage to prevent accidents and enhance safety. However, the effectiveness of these measures largely depends on enforcement and public awareness. 

Can they be recycled?

When considering the end of a jet ski's life, recycling is a viable option to minimise environmental impact. Boatbreakers, for instance, extends a jet ski recycling service that includes a free, no-obligation quote for disposing of old jet skis. 

Despite the potential for recycling, the process could be more challenging. The primary material in jet skis, Fibreglass (GRP), poses significant recycling issues due to the lack of market demand and the high costs associated with its disposal.

Moreover, while some boat salvage yards might recycle parts of the jet ski, the hull frequently ends up in landfills, underscoring the difficulties in finding sustainable end-of-life solutions for these watercraft.

However, there are avenues for disposal that can be considered a form of recycling:

  1. Donation or Resale: Before opting for scrapping, selling or donating the jet ski can offer a more environmentally friendly alternative, potentially extending its useful life.
  2. Vehicle Disposal Centers: Some centres recycle various vehicles, including jet skis, ensuring that the materials are handled responsibly.
  3. Manufacturer Initiatives: Companies like Yamaha have taken steps to reduce waste and recycle materials used in the production of jet skis.
  4. Finding a Responsible Salvage Yard: If scrapping becomes unavoidable, it's imperative to select a boat salvage yard that adheres to proper waste disposal practices, ensuring that hazardous materials are handled correctly.

Are jet skis degradable?

In our ongoing discussion about the environmental impact of jet skis, a critical aspect we must consider is their degradability, or rather, the lack thereof. Unlike organic materials that decompose over time, jet skis do not degrade naturally in the environment. 

The materials used in jet ski construction, primarily fibreglass and plastics, are not biodegradable. This means that once a jet ski reaches the end of its life, it doesn't break down into harmless substances over time.

As they accumulate in landfills or, worse, are improperly disposed of in natural settings, they pose a risk to wildlife and ecosystems. Animals can become entangled in abandoned watercraft or mistake parts of them for food, leading to injury or death. 

This characteristic poses substantial challenges to waste management and environmental sustainability.

Can jet skis be sustainable?

Manufacturers and enthusiasts are exploring ways to make jet skiing more eco-friendly. Introducing electric jet skis, such as the Taiga Orca, marks a significant step towards sustainability. This requires less maintenance compared to traditional gas-powered jet skis. 

In addition, projects like the University of Western Australia's Renewable Energy Vehicle Project, in collaboration with Electro. Aero and Galaxy Resources have created the WaveFlyer, an electric hydrofoil PWC built from old Sea-Doo parts. This electric model produces zero emissions, marking a significant step towards eco-friendly water sports.

Moreover, battery technology and charging infrastructure advancements make electric jet skis more practical and accessible.

Environmental impact compared to everyday things

In the grand scheme of things, Jet skis are just one of many contributors to CO2 emissions. Their engines can be inefficient, with a significant portion of the fuel unburned and released into the environment, contributing to water and air pollution. 

A jet ski can emit up to 250 pounds of CO2 per hour of operation. Compared to other activities and household items, this is a staggering amount that we might not think twice about using.

But how do they compare to our everyday items and activities?

To put this into perspective, let's compare their CO2 emissions to those of various everyday activities and items:

  • Household Electricity: The average UK household emits about 7.5 tons of CO2 equivalents per year from electricity use. Considering that a jet ski can emit up to 250 pounds (or about 0.113 tons) of CO2 per hour, just four hours of jet ski use equates to about 1.5% of the annual CO2 emissions from household electricity.
  • Driving a Car: The average passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of CO2 annually. Using a jet ski for just an hour can emit as much CO2 as driving a car for over 50 hours, assuming an average driving speed of 60 miles per hour.
  • Air Travel: A round-trip flight from New York to London emits about 1.6 tons of CO2 per passenger. This means that just five hours of jet ski use can have a similar carbon footprint to flying across the Atlantic.
  • Smartphone Use: The average CO2 emissions from smartphone use for a year are about 70kg. Operating a jet ski for just an hour can emit over three times this amount.
  • Laundry: Doing laundry can emit up to 179 million metric tons of CO2 annually worldwide. While massive, this number highlights the cumulative impact of seemingly minor activities. In contrast, the emissions from jet skis are more concentrated and localised but significantly higher per hour of use.

The data reveals that while jet skis have a significant environmental impact, other activities match its CO2 emission. For example, flying, which many of us partake in regularly, has a much larger impact on a per-event basis. However, the cumulative effect of smaller, more frequent activities, such as driving or using household appliances, also adds up.

What are the alternatives?

Exploring alternatives to jet skis that are environmentally friendlier and still offer a great deal of fun on the water is essential for sustainable water recreation. 

Here's a look at some alternatives and why they might be a better choice for water enthusiasts.

AlternativeAdvantagesEnvironmental Impact
Electric PWCsThe near-silent operation, zero emissionsSignificantly reduces water and air pollution
KayaksLow cost, good exercise, no emissionsMinimal impact, human-powered
Stand-up PaddleboardsGood exercise, easy to transport, no emissionsVery low-impact, human-powered
SailboatsWind-powered, can accommodate groups, no emissionsNo fuel consumption, low environmental impact
Inflatable BoatsPortable, versatile option for electric motorsLower emissions with an electric motor option
Solar-Powered Jet Skis and ParasailingPowered by solar energy, no emission and low-costVery low impact with no fuel consumption
ParasailingAn eco-friendly water activity with no emissionsNo emissions, zero carbon footprint 

Each alternative presents a way to enjoy the water while significantly reducing environmental harm. 

Is it better than alternatives?

When comparing jet skis to their alternatives, it's clear that electric models and other eco-friendly options offer significant advantages, especially regarding environmental impact. 

Here's why:

  • Reduced noise pollution: Electric jet skis and water bikes operate much more quietly than traditional ones, minimising disturbance to wildlife and other water users.
  • No emissions: Electric alternatives do not emit harmful pollutants into the air or water, making them a cleaner choice for the environment.
  • Innovative designs: Parasailing and electric water bikes offer new ways to enjoy water sports, combining fitness with eco-consciousness.

They offer a blend of excitement and eco-friendliness, making them comparable and, in many aspects, better choices for enthusiasts and the planet.

Considering the global push towards sustainability, understanding the environmental impact of our leisure activities, including jet ski use, is crucial. 

Given these considerations, it becomes clear that the environmental footprint of jet skis extends beyond their use on the water. Understanding these factors underscores the importance of technological innovations in making jet skis less environmentally harmful. 

Additionally, regulations and designated areas for jet ski usage can minimise disturbances to wildlife and ecosystems. 

By making informed choices and supporting cleaner technologies, we can enjoy recreational activities like jet skiing while minimising their environmental impact.

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