How do you deal with garbage?

Cruising is rife with romantic ideals. Exploring faraway places and pristine environments; living in harmony with nature as we make potable water from the sea, power from the sun, and forage for dinner… what a life! Gazing out across turquoise water from the cockpit, trying to keep upwind of a bag of putrefying garbage waiting on the aft deck for a place to get disposed…ew. So, how do cruisers deal with garbage?

Well, there’s a stinky problem. What do cruisers do on an everyday basis? How do we cope in remote locations? It’s not difficult, takes minimal planning, but requires almost all of us in from privileged homes to rethink habits and practices.

Sometimes, it’s as easy as a nearby bin to toss your trash bag in; here in the shipyard, we’ve even got recycling (not common in Mexico) and oil waste options.

Jamie tossing a bottle in the recycling bin at Cabrales Boatyard

Don’t count on recycling

Despite the evidence above, recycling has only rarely been available along the path of our circumnavigation. Hopefully this is changing, but since most recycling is probably a false panacea of trading garbage from one place to another less visible one. Don’t count on it; better to grow practiced at refusing, reducing, and reusing. It was great to see nice big bin at the yard here this year, next to the tip for garbage.

And then, there’s all the time we spend where outlets for trash and recycling aren’t available at all. What do we do at sea, or in remote locations?

Only organics overboard

This should be obvious – what’s not obvious is you still can’t just toss that apple core anywhere. First, there’s a practical side to that: it’s gross to walk a beach and know the pamplemousse peel at the hith tide line was probably from breakfast on a boat in the anchorage. Pretty disrespectful for anyone living nearby!

Corn cob mixed with turtle grass in the Bahamas.

Second, there’s a legal aspect. In the US, federal law prohibits tossing ANY garbage (including organics) from a boat while you are anywhere in lakes, rivers, bays, sounds, and offshore in the ocean less than 3 miles. Once past the three-mile mark, organic waste should be in small (less than an inch / 2.5cm) pieces. Realistically? We don’t all figure out the rules of every country, but use common sense for the appropriate time/place. Federal regulations are detailed in this USCG boater’s guide.

Beyond 12 miles offshore (international waters), you’re in international waters; food waste no longer needs to be ground/chopped into small pieces. For a good reference on international regulations,  download a summary of the MARPOL discharge provisions. Note well: discharge of “glass, metal, bottles, crockery and similar refuse” is always prohibited. That soda can? That glass bottle? Should not go overboard.

Keep it clean

Clean stuff doesn’t smell: that aluminum can you won’t toss over just needs to be cleaned and stored until it can be properly disposed. It’s not hard: a bucket of seawater serves well. If you’re remote, it can take a while to find a place for disposal – but if you had room to bring it on, you have room to store it until you reach that place. That’s when thoughtful provisioning comes in handy, and considering what you can eliminate from packaging for storage aboard before casting off.

Cut it up

Small pieces compact better: cutting up waste massively reduces the space it consumes. Soft plastic is the main culprit on Totem for waste – the bags and wraps for everything from sugar to tortillas – but those are easy to store for weeks or months until they can be thrown away. We use a larger bottle (say, one from juice or that liter of soy sauce or an oil container); it’s astonishing how much they can hold! Just put a few cuts into any bag that goes in so it doesn’t hold air, and compacts tightly… a chopstick helps squish it down.

Mairen holds a jug with our plastic waste from one month in Guna Yala; 2018

No plastic over, ever

This sounds easy to adhere to, but remember that plastic hides n things you shouldn’t (but might wish) you could chuck over. You’re already not going to throw away those cans and stuff, right? But did you know that most cans have a plastic liner your eyes aren’t catching, as do “paper” tetra packs? Just, no.

Beware the burn

Beach burns are a tempting way to deal with waste when you don’t have options. But remember those cans and tetra packs are plastic, not metal and paper, and burning plastic is about the most toxic thing you can do with it. Seriously, it’s better to bury it, and you wouldn’t do that – right? EPA studies now show that the relatively low temperatures of beach or backyard fires (as compared to commercial incinerators) for burning create staggeringly toxic emissions, and not just from plastics.  

It was a bummer to find this burn in an anchorage that was only a morning’s sail away from a place all that junk could have been disposed.

Spoiling pristine Puerto Don Juan: I just can’t believe someone would think this is OK.

Pretty frustrating to see that kind of carelessness.

Finally, Where there are people, there is a method for tossing waste. Ideally, it goes to places where it’s managed in a way that’s responsible for our health and the planet. Realistically, it often isn’t. Below is the daily burn at the main anchorage in Anjouan, Comoros; this serves as the town dump and was unavoidable.

Not too bad on this day…

Here in Puerto Peñasco, we wake up in the shipyard some mornings with sore eyes and dry throats because the toxic smoke from the garbage dump burns has drifted our way. Aside from the discomfort, low-grade burns like this are damaging method for the atmosphere. It all adds to a case to be aware of any packaging/future waste and minimize as much as possible.

Upcoming events

  • TOTEM TALKS, Saturday Oct 17: Drones and photography underway. Drone yer heart out! Livestream this Saturday has Q&A with expert Vivian Vuong, talking all the things and answering all the questions.  Register here, feel free to send questions ahead! 
  • WSS returns with Seafaring Storytelling, Monday night, Oct 19: by women, for women; the theme this “The Lighter Side.” This was a ton of fun! Details at iyc.org/wss.

14 Responses

  1. This was really interesting to read! I’d been wondering about this as I’d heard tossing aluminum overboard is ok – that the ocean breaks it down, but I wasn’t sure. How do you store cans unit you find garbage? Thanks!

    1. Hi Kristin- that is a myth I am happy to bust; it’s not the case! A friend of mine at Smithsonian is involved in underwater research; here’s a picture from him of a can at the bottom of the ocean, apparently some decades later. it probably helps that we don’t cook from cans very much, so there’s not much to store. But – wash it, and stow it. If it’s clean, it doesn’t smell, so we don’t mind a bag tied up on deck or stuffed into the dinghy (if on davits for a passage).

      1. So interesting! How do you prepare for long times away from stores? Canning and pickling? I feel like you could write a book about off grid sailing. I’d read it!

        1. I definitely prefer my own canning and pickling and fermenting to commercial tin can stuff for longer term stores. Don’t get me wrong, we still have a stash of canned goods on board, but it’s not what we rely on and I prefer it that way for remote sailing because of the waste volume. LOL re: me writing a book about off grid sailing. Maybe someday! But Lin Pardey’s Care and Feeding of Sailing Crew does this pretty well, too. Love that book, maybe time to re-read it again. 😉

          1. I love that book and own it! Do you have any book recommendations about canning and pickling? Thanks for all your help! I want to grow my own sprouts and have that stuff 🙂

          2. Kristin – A good book that got me started with pickling onboard is “”Pickling Everything: Foolproof Recipes for Sour, Sweet, Spicy, Savory, Crunchy, Tangy Treats” by Leda Meredith

    1. It appears the deposito system is no longer in place (replaced by general convenience stores), they something we kinda loved from our earlier years in Mexico. To be honest we aren’t buying cans or bottles much, though, maybe the convenience stores are playing intermediary? I kind of doubt it though.

  2. Depositos were still in place in small towns (La Cruz de Sinaloa, north of Mazatlan) when we were there in January of this year.

  3. Great article thanks for sharing.
    Probably a silly question but if you don’t eat much from cans and jars what do you eat when the fresh stuff is gone? In an attempt to avoid plastics, cans have been my go to for long life produce.

    1. Hi Alison, there’s sooo much that’s not in a metal can! Think: home-canned (glass Mason jar, not aluminum can) meat or veggies… pickling and fermenting veggies… dried beans and legumes… rice / pasta / grains… I feel like I should take a tour of our food lockers now. LOL!

      When covid kicked in, I was already canning up meat and pickling veggies in anticipation of months with less convenient (and more costly) provisioning options in the south pacific. Seven months later, my mason jars are almost empty again; but storing them doesn’t feel like an issue or a hardship. Check out my provisioning posts, especially the two from around March re: provisioning for pandemic and old-school skills.

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