What to do With Trash Aboard a Boat - Sailors for the Sea

What to do With Trash Aboard a Boat

 June 15, 2023  | By: Jennifer Brett

Plastics and other marine debris can be found in every ocean and along beaches all over the world.

Something that we at Sailors for the Sea get asked about a lot is what to do with trash aboard a boat, particularly one that’s cruising or racing long distances. And for good reason! Marine debris of all kinds is a big problem in our oceans and waters – damaging habitats, hurting sea life – so it’s important to have a plan in place to deal with waste on board. Here we offer tips and suggestions that answer some of the most frequent trash questions we receive:

Plan your provisions

Long before leaving the dock, plan out your menu and food stores. If you will be on the boat for a finite amount of time, say for a long-distance race or a boat delivery, drawing up a menu plan considering time (with a buffer for safety, of course) and the number of people aboard will help prevent over purchasing. Preparing meals ahead of time and storing them in reusable containers will reduce trash considerably.

Also think about your destination. This is important as many coastal and island communities do not have a robust waste management infrastructure. Research what is available ahead of time and do all you can to not add to their burden.

Cook from scratch

If you’re cruising or living aboard for a longer period of time, cook from scratch as much as possible. Storing ingredients to make baked goods will generate much less waste (and be cheaper!) than keeping a supply of brownie and pancake mixes aboard. Learn how to store fresh produce aboard to maximize its life and plan meals around what needs to be eaten, instead of relying on canned and packaged items.

Baking items from scratch can greatly reduce the about of trash you have aboard. Many cruising sailors even turn bread baking into a hobby.

Don’t bring it aboard

The easiest way to deal with trash is to not bring it aboard in the first place. When provisioning, shop in bulk and properly dispose of the packaging shoreside.

Skip individual packs

Small, commercially packed individual snack items produce an abundant amount of waste that is not recyclable, compostable or biodegradable. Those little mylar and plastic-film wrappers and bags can easily blow overboard and then be mistaken by sea turtles and other marine life as food. Consider baking your own cookies and granola bars and storing them in reusable containers.

This can apply for drinks too! Whether you like to have juices, sodas, or sports drinks aboard, there are some great alternatives to single-use cans and plastic bottles. Concentrates and powders can be found for many juices and sports drinks, and carbonating units like Soda Streams are common in cruising boat galleys.

Skip all the plastic-wrapped produce and seek out farmer’s markets for your provisioning runs.

Focus on reusables (and reuse everything)

On board a boat, it’s said that everything should have at least two uses. Try to keep that in mind when you go shopping. When provisioning for cruising aboard our boat, Lyra, we would think about the immediate use of the item, and how it could be used in the future. After finishing a jug of juice, the container could be refilled with water or another beverage or have a new life as a dinghy bailer. Small plastic containers with lids (coffee, peanut butter, etc.) became homes for all sorts of items aboard.

Store it right

This goes for your provisions *and* your trash. Put thought into where and how you will store your food items so that they don’t get damaged, rot, or go stale before you can eat them.

For the trash, if you’re sailing offshore or cruising in remote locations, you will need to plan for long-term storage. Wash trash items beforehand to prevent odors and pests, compact things as much as possible, and secure the trash bag or receptacle to keep it from going overboard (if storing on deck). For items like plastic bags and wrappers, stuff them into a clean container, such as a juice bottle. This is an easy, compact way to store some of the most bulky trash until you can dispose of it properly.

Don’t toss overboard

We are asked all the time if certain things can be “safely” thrown overboard, and the short answer is no. Just don’t. Cans and glass from decades ago can be seen littering the sea floor, and most cans (including soda cans) have plastic liners.

Think your soda cans are going to “disappear” in the ocean? Think again.

While the best-case scenario for food items would be to keep scraps aboard and compost when you reach shore, this isn’t always available or feasible. If you are out for only a short time, keep your food scraps (yes, this includes apple cores and banana peels) and dispose of them when you get to shore. If you will be at least three nautical miles offshore (and farther is better), according to International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL regulations) you can dispose of food waste overboard ONLY if it has been ground up and can fit through a strainer with “mesh no more than 25 mm.”

While grinding food waste isn’t legally required if you are more than 12 nautical miles offshore (international waters), we recommend cutting items up as small as possible.

Do you have any trash tips we should add? Let us know! For more Green Boating information, download our Green Boating Guide!