Q&A: Being Green On The Blue

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Member Paul asks [edited for brevity]:

More years ago than I care to think about we used to happily toss our empty beer and rum bottles over the side immediately on consumption and joke about how they would show us the path home if we ever got lost.

When we first became environmentally aware we’d smash the bottles first so the debris sank. If we were drinking from cans we’d knock a hole in the bottom with a winch handle to make them sink. Recalling all this from today’s enlightened perspective makes me ashamed (at both the littering and the drinking).

I’d be very interested in your thoughts on dealing with rubbish on long cruises:

  • What can be jettisoned into the sea and what preparation should it receive first?
  • Is this different in anchorages and coastlines than on the open sea?
  • How do you treat and store everything else until you return to civilisation where recycling and disposal facilities are available?

Answer:

The historical reference to drinking and tossing while sailing offshore resonated with John. He even remembers, 30 years ago, throwing full garbage bags overboard when ocean racing, something that we can’t imagine doing today.

However, I would suggest that those of us who no longer toss are probably in the minority, based on the pervasiveness of marine litter, which John and I have seen firsthand throughout our travels, even in remote places in the Arctic.

And, of course, how we deal with garbage on a boat is only the tip of the iceberg of the problem. We as a species are producing too much garbage due to: over-consumption, over-packaging, the development of synthetic materials that don’t degrade, and because there are just so many of us.

On land we put our garbage out at the end of the driveway and it gets magically removed to somewhere out of sight, so it’s easier to ignore the problem. Not so easy to ignore on a small boat!

Here’s what we do on Morgan’s Cloud:

RecyclingJHHLX100-1000134

When provisioning the boat, we remove as much packaging as possible before we move it onboard. When we are sailing inshore in places where recycling is available, we keep a blue recycling bag up forward, wash all recyclables, and keep them in the closed bag until we are somewhere with recycling containers (you can find recycling containers, including for compostables, in most communities in Nova Scotia, if not right on the dock).

If sailing somewhere without recycling facilities, it unfortunately ends up in the garbage.

Food waste

We have a large tupperware container that lives on the galley counter, held on by a bungy cord, that we use for all food waste. If more than 3 miles offshore, we dump the contents into the sea when full.

When close inshore or in port, we empty it into the regular galley garbage can. Or, if the regular garbage isn’t close to being full, we seal the first container and store it somewhere secure, then put a second container in its place until it’s full. Then we empty both into the garbage, by which point the galley can will be full and will be removed for storage in the lazarette (see below).

The reason for keeping food waste separate from the rest of the garbage as long as we can is to keep the garbage from smelling.

Garbage

If we are offshore or in remote places, we put full garbage bags (see above) inside larger garbage bag(s) that we keep in the lazarette until we arrive at our destination. If we follow the recycling and food protocol above, we actually don’t make that much garbage, so it isn’t as obnoxious as it sounds.

Now, we do have a large lazarette and, since we usually sail just the two of us, there is a space in the forward cabin for the recycling bag, so this protocol may not work on a smaller boat.

Please comment and let us know what tips you have for dealing with garbage on your boat.

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Meet the Author

Phyllis

Phyllis has sailed over 40,000 offshore miles with John on their McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, most of it in the high latitudes, and has crossed the Atlantic three times. As a woman who came to sailing as an adult, she brings a fresh perspective to cruising, which has helped her communicate what they do in an approachable way, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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16 comments … add one
  • Bill Attwood Jan 25, 2015, 4:08 pm

    Hi Phyllis,
    An excellent and timely post. I think our treatment of waste is the same as yours, although our solid waste (plastic, tin, glass etc) lives in the cockpit in a waterproof sack when on passage.
    We carry a significant amount of uht milk and fruit juices in Tetrapacks on passage, and when empty these are folded flat and compressed before having the cap screwed on, then carefully tied together in bundles. Tins are washed at the sea-water spigot in the galley, and the botton is removed with the tin-opener so that they can also be squashed flat. This has become so ingrained that we also do it ashore, producing strange looks when non-sailing friends visit. If one really tries to reduce the volume of garbage it is surprising how much you can carry with you. One problem which we haven´t yet had to deal with is when garbage is properly disposed of ashore, but the local authorities just dump it on the beach or in the sea.
    We also have large numbers of plastic boxes (Click n`click) which we use for storing bulk foodstuffs (rice, lentils etc) so that we can get rid of much of the packaging at point of purchase.
    I hope your post produces lots of comment and new ideas!
    Yours aye,
    Bill

  • Eric Klem Jan 25, 2015, 9:51 pm

    Hi Phyllis,

    A very worthwhile topic. It seems that the boating community loves to discuss black water discharge but that there is very little discussion of other waste.

    On the different boats that I have sailed on (including our own), we have often treated waste very similarly to you. The one extra rule that we have with food waste on our own boat is that we cut everything up into cubes of smaller than 1″ if it isn’t already that small. When it comes to trash, we are very careful to keep liquids out. I used to keep the trash in big rubbermaid totes but that was a real pain and since starting to be very careful about liquids, it hasn’t been an issue. Like Bill, we break down everything that goes in the trash and find that we can go 2+ weeks on a single kitchen size bag.

    Eric

  • Marc Dacey Jan 26, 2015, 2:41 am

    We are still in the run-up to pushing off, but we are collecting ideas like can crushing and transferring bulk goods to sealable containers wherever possible, or by using older techniques like storing cheese in olive-oil filled square Mason jars: when the cheese is gone, the oil is tasty on salad! Tellingly, perhaps, ever-rising garbage and recycling fees on land are providing sound direction on overall waste reduction.

  • Erik de Jong Jan 26, 2015, 1:02 pm

    We also remove as much packaging before setting off and try to buy as much as we can in bulk and store this in re-usable containers.

    There is of course always litter left that at some point needs to go in the trash. I make it a habit to wash it together with the other dishes and store it in bins or bags by type of trash. I will only dispose of it when I`m in area`s that have some kind of a trash system in place.

    I`ve seen many places, especially the Arctic, where the `trash system` means `burn it` with enormous clouds of poison visibly going into the air. If I can avoid it to use that system, I will do that at all time. This sometimes mean that I will end up with several months of trash onboard. This is not really a big deal if you compress it as Bill describes, and it will not stink if you wash and dry it before tossing it in the bin/bag.

  • Dick Stevenson Jan 26, 2015, 8:54 pm

    Dear Phyllis,
    A very nice article, especially to share what you actually do in areas where so many have strong feelings. On Alchemy we follow roughly the same regimen, even to the Tupperware container for wet garbage. On our smaller boat, (40 feet) we have space for a medium size bag, double bagged, for accumulated garbage. This is fine for most passages as we also only number 2 and, without the wet garbage, there is less worry about smell and spill. Still, we do not have room for much extra and even that one bag, stored, is a pain if certain chores need doing.
    Offshore, we feel comfortable cutting up paper products (not waxed) into small pieces and letting them into the sea. We cut our paper towel usage considerably by strategically having white “work” towels (handkerchief sized terry cloth) placed in the cockpit and galley. Some use “tea” towels, but we found them a bit too big to have ready at hand but also out of the way/sight.
    You can always spot other cruisers in out of the way places by those who do their big shopping in a supermarket, go through the cashier and find a corner to strip off packaging and leave all that mostly paper product behind. The looks we sometimes get is amusing.
    Cereal, raisons, sugar, etc, stripped of their outer “protective” packaging can be kept safe and stored most anywhere with the use of dry bags such as used on canoe trips. Oil also, or anything that you want to give a little protection to, but not see in the bilge.
    It is always best to bring re-cycleable stuff back to shore for recycling, although the number of destinations I have sailed to which actually have recycling are few. Last time I was knocking this subject around, it seemed that there was general consensus that on deep water ocean passages to allow metal and glass to go to the bottom. I am willing to be educated as to the harm done to the oceans by this activity. After all, they sink big metal ships as fish habitats.
    People who throw plastic overboard, especially cigarette butts, should be forced to eat same so they know what it is like.
    Thanks again for a fine essay,
    Dick Stevenson, l/v Alchemy

  • Rob Withers Jan 27, 2015, 9:31 am
  • Scott Fraser Jan 27, 2015, 11:28 am

    Our routine on an offshore passage is very similar to yours. While I applaude people who want to crush and store metal cans, at sea we will toss cans and glass bottles overboard on the premise that they probably do less environmental harm 15,000 ft below sea level than they to in an island’s landfill. Given the trash you often see strewn about in underdeveloped countries, the last thing I want to do is add to their burden.

    The sad thing about garbage is that it will end up somewhere. IMHO, the responsible thing to do is to think hard about where it’s going to do the least environmental harm. The truth is that for some things and at sometimes the least harmful spot is at the bottom of the sea.

  • Mike McCollough Jan 27, 2015, 2:18 pm

    Excellent article and comments
    Waste management needs to start with producer. The producer or manufacturer should have a method for disposing of the items made for distributing goods along with a method for disposing of the goods. The cost of these methods should be part of the cost of the goods. Currently the manufacturer and the consumer get disposal almost for free, with the caveat that all end up paying for this problem in the future. The disposal cost is borne by society as a whole. It should be made extremely unattractive, prohibitively expensive, to manufacture goods any other way.

  • Wes Gary Jan 27, 2015, 7:09 pm

    Great article on a topic discussed by cruisers in distant ports. Many agree on throwing glass (made from sand) and metal (from earth) overboard when far out to sea. They are going back to where they came from. It’s the absurd amount of plastic used in packaging that frustrates me. Do big box stores really have to use thick oversized packaging for a small item like a USB drive?
    Thanks for the great site,
    Wes s/v Good News

  • Pete Thornton Jan 28, 2015, 6:39 am

    Tetra paks take up a lot of space even flattened. Opened up, rinsed out they become useful receptacles for rubbish. The non recyclables rammed in to a tetra pak create a 1 litre brick of rubbish which is easy to stow. Its amazing how much you can cram in because they are very strong. For best results some of that ridiculous blister packaging needs to be chopped up to facilitate the cramming. Much better than plastic bags which are very susceptible to getting snagged and torn. You end up with neat high density rubbish “bricks”.

  • Phyllis Jan 28, 2015, 5:12 pm

    Thanks all for your great comments.
    The over-packaging issue really incenses me and I totally agree with you Mike that we need to pay the actual cost of the products we purchase, including the costs of disposal.
    The discussion around disposing of metal and glass overboard is a touchy one. We used to do so when offshore (after cleaning and puncturing to ensure sinking) until a crew member got totally upset with me and accused me of defacing the ocean. I have to admit I haven’t done so since, out of fear rather than conviction! There don’t seem to be clear guidelines on whether that is considered okay or not, at least not that I have been able to find.

  • Matt Jan 28, 2015, 11:27 pm

    I’m a little worried about the tendency, in some circles, to use a “garbage fire” to dispose of garbage upon landfall. That’s fine for cardboard and paper, but an open fire is not hot enough to safely burn plastics, waste oil, solvents, etc. If you try, a plethora of nasty molecules inevitably end up airborne and/or leaching into the soil.

    As for “throw it overboard” – When offshore, that makes complete sense for food waste. While I’d prefer to save metal & glass for recycling, they should cause no harm if sunk. Most packaging metals will quickly corrode away in seawater (aluminum and iron oxides are both naturally abundant and pretty much harmless).

    The only safe thing to do with plastic is to crush & store it until you get to a recycling facility. I’ve seen enough dead seabirds full of plastic trash to take a hard line on this one.

    Of course, when you’re in the wilder parts of Ontario, “recycling facility” often means “that hill where you drive to the top and throw bags down to the bears at the bottom”.

  • RobertB Jan 31, 2015, 10:36 am

    Environmental questions like dumping are usually much more complicated than they appear if you look at the whole picture. Aluminum cans may not cause individual damage to the ocean, but the global mining of Aluminum is a nasty and incredibly energy intensive process. The red sludge byproduct is one of the big disposal problems of the world. Not recycling aluminum cans may cause more damage to the planet than people think. The good news is that recycling the aluminum uses only 5% of the energy required to create from raw materials. Something to think about if you can at all avoid having to dump the aluminum cans.

  • Bill Attwood Jan 31, 2015, 10:59 am

    Good point Robert. I have also read that there is actually enough of the metal in existence to be able to meet demand purely by recycling.
    Yours aye,
    Bill

    • Marc Dacey Jan 31, 2015, 11:11 am

      This is why I wonder why New York City dumps all that refined steel and aluminum onto the seafloor (coral at that latitude?) when “clean fill” such as concrete and rebar could provide the same substrate for marine life. Aside from pure recycling, could these largish spaces not be repurposed as housing for the homeless? Every second architecture magazine I read seems to have “shipping containers as houses”, some of which look pretty nice!

  • Xavier Itzmann Mar 6, 2015, 5:40 pm

    “disposing of metal and glass overboard is a touchy one. We used to do so when offshore (after cleaning and puncturing to ensure sinking) until a crew member got totally upset with me and accused me of defacing the ocean”

    We probably wouldn’t go sailing with such an extreme person.

    Glass is inert. If it reaches the bottom unbroken, it will most likely become someone’s home before it sinks in mud or sand. Metal, not inert, will corrode at the bottom in short order.

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