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Old 01-29-2007, 08:43 AM   #1
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OK, call me ignorant, but I'm a neophyte to long-distance cruising. I plan to move in that direction over the next few years (becoming a blue-water cruiser). Anyway, I've been thinking about some of the more "mundane" things that we take for granted in our every-day landlocked lives, and how they may need to be tackled with a different mind-set once out on the blue. One of those is trash. Garbage. Basura.

I just took my weekly "allotment" of trash out to the bin a few moments ago, and it struck me, "this won't be the norm when I'm finally out of sight of land"! So, I guess my question is, how do we reduce and eliminate waste on long ocean voyages, or for that matter when on the hook in some nice out of the way lagoon? Solid waste, inorganic as well as organic? Tips, techniques, ideas from some of the more experienced salts out there?!? Thanks!
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Old 01-29-2007, 10:23 AM   #2
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First thing to consider, IMO, is that if you're visiting island nations, you are importing your garbage for them to take care of. With that in mind, here's how we handled our trash to present as light a burden as possible on these islands that we visited.

Plastic. I truly dislike all the plastic trash our society generates, primarily because it is so persistent in the environment. We never throw plastic overboard, we always carry it to our next landfall and dispose of it. - one exception, which I'll get into further on.

Metal cans and glass. We sail offshore, beyond the archipelago or continental shelf, and we throw overboard, making sure that it will sink. Glass is essentially silica, and will just become sand again. In the meantime, it will make a house for some fish or other animal.

Aluminum barely biodegrades, is persistent for a long time, but it isn't so harmful - again, on the bottom of the sea it can provide a home for some animal. Regular "tin" cans will degrade albeit quite slowly, but again, not harmful. The iron in the cans provides vital nutrients in the nutrient-poor tropical waters, so in some ways this is a boon to the ocean, not a burden.

Paper degrades quickly, so over that goes, but torn into small pieces.

Food waste is wonderful food for all those sea creatures, so over that goes.

Since I do not buy many prepackaged, pre-prepared foods, we don't produce a significant amount of waste, and most foods I buy are transferred into waterproof containers on the boat and the packaging discarded before we set off. Three weeks at sea and we will have perhaps one "tall kitchen bag" full of garbage destined for the garbage collector on land.

A few other things to keep down the trash. I do not use plastic bags for refrigerating foods ("zip loc bags"). Leftovers or meals prepared before we set off are stored in reusable containers. I use a coffee sock to make coffee, so I don't have to carry and discard paper filters anymore. The staples - sugar, flour, salt, rice, are usually packaged in paper, and I put all these into air tight plastic bottles or other containers when they are brought back to the boat, and I then discard the paper.

I use powdered milk, so one medium-sized can replaces 3 or four gallon milk containers. I buy eggs in paperboard flats or boxes. In many places in the world eggs are still sold individually and I have a plastic egg carrier to store them in on the boat. I try to use as much fresh produce as possible so we normally don't carry a lot of canned vegetables. We eat a lot of cabbage and carrots, celery and onions.

Now for another way we discard our garbage. Some places, where we stay for a very long time without returning to civilization, Peter will go ashore to burn our trash. He'll scavenge driftwood as well to build a very hot, large fire, and he'll burn our paper, plastic wrapping, and aluminum foil.

That's how we handle our garbage.
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Old 01-29-2007, 10:47 AM   #3
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Thanks JeanneP - that's the kind of info I'm looking for! I'm an avid backpacker, and when out in the backcountry I'm also very trash-minded and really think hard about what can be disposed of in the wild (organic/burnable) and what has to be brought back to civilization with me (in my experiences plastic and cans).

It's interesting to hear about tossing some items overboard, and the reasons for doing so - makes sense, especially for glass, paper, and food-waste.

I'm also not particularly fond of our growing reliance on "disposable" plastics.

Again, thanks for the input!
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Old 01-29-2007, 03:09 PM   #4
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You might be suprised how fast things inclusing aluminum break down.

I grew up on the GA coast with Ossabaw and St. Cathrines Islands 6 miles out from my front yard. The beaches there are natural, no real human interaction there, so everything that washes up stays from shrimp boats and crab traps to plastic bottles and aluminum cans.

UV destroys plastic in a short time, and cans get so fragile you can stick yor finger through the side.

I agree that if you have facilities available don's toss your refuse into the environment uncontroled, a bag of trash floating up on the beach is an eyesore, but in small quantities nature can deal quite well.
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Old 01-29-2007, 06:34 PM   #5
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Thanks for the useful information JeanneP - but doesn't burning plastic and aluminium foil produce toxic fumes?
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Old 01-29-2007, 08:49 PM   #6
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Re: Plastic. And burning aluminum foil.

Plastic. We all have Peter's father to thank for the proliferation of plastics in our lives. During WW II while in the US Army Chemical Corps. he developed the plasticizers that gave plastics its long life and resistance to UV (vinyl car roofs, for example, are only possible because of his product). I believe that it is still the only plasticizer approved by the Food & Drug Administration to be used in plastics that come in contact with food (it's what keeps plastic freezer bags supple when frozen, for example. It's in the glue that secures food packaging, keeping it from becoming brittle and losing its "stickiness").

While he was alive he was my fact checker for a lot of the information in my Cruiser's Dictionary (Free download)

Because he was such an authority on plastics, I asked him about the reasons for the persistence of plastics. Plastics have very long chain molecules that are extremely stable. UV does degrade plastic, but very slowly. And it doesn't actually degrade plastics into its elemental components, but rather just breaks the molecular links between chains so that the plastic breaks into smaller and smaller pieces, remaining the same impervious compound all the way down to grain size. And they must be exposed to UV, so once it is buried, or covered by sand, they no longer break down. The smaller the pieces before disposal, the quicker it will break down into very small pieces.

Although there are now plastics that are made to degrade more quickly, it is primarily those plastics used for bags, such as supermarket bags.

Luckily for me, our niece, a Pockel granddaughter, is just completing her doctorate in Chemistry, so I still have a readily-at-hand chemistry source.

Now for burning. Yes, burning plastics in particular releases toxic fumes if the heat is not high enough. The little fire in the barbecue, a common way that yachts burn their disposable waste, is not sufficient to break down the plastic molecular chains sufficiently, so residue is left behind. That's one reason we only burn them when we know we won't be near a proper garbage disposal site for a long time. And it's the reason that Peter builds a very large, very hot fire. Not as good as a proper incinerator or "trash-to-energy" furnace, but still a bit better than tossing them into the environment as is. Caveat being, the ashes should not be buried, but remain exposed to UV light.

Burning is a poor substitute for a better disposal system, but a better disposal system does not presently exist. The worst offenders are the undeveloped island nations of the world, where its population is used to disposing of its waste by tossing it into the sea to degrade naturally. They are unaware of the problems with plastic - and since the sea takes the plastic away from their beach they have no way of knowing what is happening. This is the biggest reason we try to limit the amount of trash that we generate and bring to these island communities.

There are no easy answers, I know. When we first arrived in St. Martin in the Caribbean, a friend told us to pick up his mooring. He dropped the line into the water so nobody would pick it up while he was gone, but he said it was easy to find, look for all the beer cans on the bottom. We found all those beer cans, and his mooring line, more than 3 years after he had left the island!

Aluminum beer and soft drink cans are very thin to begin with, just a micron or two thicker than aluminum foil. They degrade slowly, but at least eventually when exposed to the abrasion of sand will break down into smaller and smaller particles.
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Old 01-31-2007, 04:50 AM   #7
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I think you will find that aluminum will become aluminum oxide in the corrosive sea water far faster than you would think. However, beer and soda cans are coated with passivation layers to withstand the corrosive nature of their contents. As such, cans may tend to last for a much longer time. Heating the cans to say 150C will greatly accelerate the decomposition of the passivation layers.
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Old 02-01-2007, 04:43 AM   #8
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I always try to break beer bottles with a winch handle and also open up aluminium cans. My feeling (unsubstantiated by scientists) is that if a baby fish or mollusc found my trash to be a nice home, a la hermit crab for instance, then at least he could get out of it without becoming a big fish in a little bottle, waiting for it to disintegrate! Tony
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Old 02-01-2007, 05:55 AM   #9
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I used to do that, too. As I did more diving in more places, though, I decided that the little fish and octopi (my favorite sea animal, I think) needed little holes to escape from bigger predators, so I left them as they were. Though fish a big bigger probably appreciate the larger entrance.

Either way, you're providing some little critter a little hidey hole.
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Old 02-01-2007, 07:02 AM   #10
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I always do my best to dispose of trash in a way which I believe is best for the environment.

Quite often, upon checking into a new port or nation, I've found the officials will want to see my plastic trash and will even check the trash item off on the official paperwork... and justifiably so.

Anyway - after motoring through a mile of oil slick on the surface of Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea, into the port of Alatau and proceeding to the dock as directed by port authorities for check-in procedures... the last thing they asked to see was our plastic trash... which I had stowed in the lazarette. I produced every scrap of plastic we'd carried from Australia and they smiled and checked the box, signed & stamped everything, handed me a copy and said "Welcome to Papua New Guinea."

I thanked them and asked where I might dispose of the bag of plastic trash - to which they all gestured and replied, in unison...

"Throw it away out there - in the bay when you go. We don't want your trash here."

Go figgure.

"Papua New Guinea - the Land of the Unexpected."

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