Dealing with garbage at sea

Graphics: Oliver Lüde / CC: Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, ZHdK /

No more messages in a bottle

For generations, blue water cruisers have separated out garbage underway to dispose of  the "degradable" items from garbage into the sea.  Food scraps were definitely in that category, as was paper and glass. Metal tins were often considered degradable as well, given how quickly things rust away if left on their own.  But no more. MARPOL Annex V adopted for international waters as of January 2013 delineates that discharge is prohibited of plastics, synthetic ropes, fishing gear, plastic garbage bags, cooking oil, lining and packing materials, paper, rags, glass, metal, and bottles. 

Just looking at the decomposition chart above shows why the new rules have been drafted. Everyone knows that plastics are evil and practically indestructible.  "Disposable" diapers (yuch) last 450 years, as long as plastic bottles. Surprisingly, paper can take a long time to decompose and tin cans can last 50 years or more in anoxic environments. If it gets to the bottom and sinks in, it may be preserved for even longer. Just look at how well some shipwrecks are preserved.

Interestingly, the longevity of glass is undetermined. All that lovely sea glass is still coming ashore, tumbled into pleasing smoothness. Those messages in a bottle might just outlast all of us, but it will no longer be legal to send new ones off.

Spinsheet reported that Susan Shingledecker, vice president of the BoatU.S. Foundation, sent a memo to the organizers of the Bermuda Race from the U.S. Coast Guard about the updated regulations on garbage disposal offshore (MARPOL Annex V). She noted that the U.S. has not yet adopted the change but that sailors are still bound by the rules. 

"If you are going on an international sailing voyage, such as to Bermuda, you must follow international regulations. These regulations apply to all ships, big and small. If you wouldn't want a cruise ship doing it, then you shouldn't be doing it,” says Shingledecker.”

Does it bother anyone that the US has not adopted MARPOL Annex V? Is it the cruise ship industry that has some influence here?  Or is it the navy and it's multitudinous procedural issues that would have to change?  What I find most appalling is the increase of traffic into previously pristine areas, like the Arctic. Would you want someone dumping paper plates on your lawn?  No! So why dump yours on sea creatures' territory?

People like Matt Rutherford are out there trying to document the extent of the problem. How about we just band together and vow not to add to it.  


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