Tips for dealing with waste at sea

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This article was published in the Blue Planet Log magazine (Issue 2 – July 2013)

Ideas for provisioning

  • Buying in bulk or wholesale means your products come with less, or even no packaging – it’s cheaper too!
  • Where possible buy packaging that can be reused, e.g. a glass jar is better than single-use plastic.
  • Remove all packaging before you leave port and dispose of it at a proper waste management facility
    (removing cardboard also helps prevent cockroaches).
  • Re-store foodstuffs (cereal, rice, pasta) into storage bins or containers.
  • For more practical daily use, decant bulk-buy toiletries and cleaning products into smaller containers you use again and again.
  • Where possible buy base ingredients and bake from scratch instead of buying prepared food like biscuits, pastries and some
    main meals (saves on packaging, space on board and money).

When at sea

  • Nothing goes overboard, except for organics over 12 miles from land. If you’ve got space to bring it on in the first place, then you should have space to take it home.
  • In your organics bin you can include all food scraps apart from cooking oil – the smaller the pieces the better.
    This can only go over the side when 12 miles or more from land.
  • Reuse any glass/tin containers. These can be given away as presents; they are like GOLD in remote communities!
  • Rinse any trash in salt water and compress as much as possible.
  • To avoid smells through the boat store waste in an airtight compartment.
  • Store used batteries in an airtight container and dispose of them properly ashore. Many supermarkets have a battery disposal box.
  • Keep recyclables separate (any plastic marked with 1 or 2; glass & metal, paper and cardboard). Note: Plastic bags and film are not recyclable.

When reaching land

  • Research what waste management/ recycling system exists where you land. If inadequate facilities exist, keep waste on board.
  • Even if locals offer to take your rubbish/garbage, you should check out where it’s going. For example, in the Maldives, the word for ‘waste dump’ and ‘beach’ are identical!
  • If there is landfill, check out what this actually means. If it’s a pile of trash, on unprotected ground on a low-lying coral atoll, this is not adequate and is likely to be leaching toxins into the ocean.
  • DO NOT dump rubbish in a street bin or burn it on the beach. Burning plastic on an open fire at much lower heat than in a proper incinerator produces nasty dioxins, which are known carcinogens and hormone disrupters, and are no good for our bodies.

The bigger picture – plastic in our oceans

Everything runs downhill to the ocean. Any plastic not properly disposed of is likely to end up in a gyre, a rotating system of ocean currents found between 20 and 40 degrees north and south of the equator. There is currently 73.9 million pounds (33,500 metric tons) of plastic spread throughout the world’s gyres.

Once floating in the ocean, plastic photodegrades when UV light breaks it down into smaller pieces, but plastic DOES NOT biodegrade and goes back into the natural cycle.

Big pieces of plastic can cause harm to animals: it is stated that a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals die each year from getting tangled up in or eating plastic. These include albatross, whales and seals. Small bits of plastic get mistaken for food, and fish and other animals end up eating it. While not many incidences have been recorded of fish actually dying from eating plastic, what is a greater concern is the chemical build up as toxins have the potential to biomagnify as they move up the food chain.

Not all trash stays in a gyre. Islands are like natural nets. Ocean debris often washes up on shores placing greater strain on island waste management systems (see report on the Nicobar Islands).

Emily Penn has a degree in Sustainable Architecture from Cambridge University. She was the first woman and youngest person to be awarded the international Yachtmaster of the Year. She has set up a waste management system and environmental education program in Tonga’s Ha’apai Islands.

At present she is director of the global organisation Pangaea Explorations; taking scientists, filmmakers, educators and journalists to the most remote parts of our planet. and

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