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.

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

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