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Stewardship and dealing with trash

Jun 25, 2014

To the editor: For six years, I spent a lot of time floating around on the surface of the ocean — something like 50,000 nautical miles worth. After the circumnavigation, I fell into a new maritime career. I pilot undersea robots called remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). With joystick in one hand, elevator in the other, I watch a big-screen TV and literally fly the ROV through the water far below the surface.

ROVs provide television-quality, high-definition video from the sea floor. This means that now, instead of spending hours on watch gazing out at the sea surface, I spend hours on watch gazing out at the sea floor. And the diversity of what I’ve seen is magnificent: black smokers in the Galápagos; huge, gaping thermal vents in the Caribbean; brine pools in the Gulf of Mexico; and vertical walls of corals, sponges, and more hundreds of feet tall.

All too frequently, however, it’s not a pristine view. Trash turns up a mile or two underwater: Bottles, cans, fishing gear, clothing, plastic bags...

We see trash on every dive we do. Cindy Lee Van Dover is a former pilot-in-command of Alvin, the research submersible. She said that on every dive she’s done in Alvin, she’s seen some form of trash on the sea floor.

So, as cruisers, what role do we play in this trashing of the oceans? Well, think about it — you’ve just set off from the Galápagos bound for the Marquesas, or maybe Antigua direct to the Azores. You’re looking at several weeks of passagemaking in front of you. During that time, you’re going to generate some rubbish — food packaging primarily, cans, bottles, that sort of thing. What do you do with them?

One alternative is to store it all up and deposit it conscientiously ashore upon arrival. But think about the places cruisers like to go — remote and isolated islands with minimal infrastructure. I mean it’s one thing to tie up in Newport, R.I., and toss your trash in a big dumpster. Another thing altogether to arrive in Chagos at an uninhabited island.

Consider Terre-de-Haut in Les Saintes in the Eastern Caribbean. When Raine and I arrived there one time, we dutifully deposited our detritus in a marked bin. Then we went for a walk. What we discovered was an open-air dump at the end of a long dirt road where trash literally tumbled down a hill and directly into the sea. What we had thought was conscientious and correct behavior on our part in fact turned out to be contributing to the growing problem of ocean pollution.

Now imagine truly underdeveloped places like Vanuatu or the Comoros. Or even developing areas like Tonga that are simply pressed with huge volumes of rubbish from the demands of the tourist trade. These places simply don’t have the facilities to deal with modern packaging waste. A walk in the shallows along village waterfronts exposes old cans, bottles, dead batteries, even outboard motors.

So what do we as responsible voyagers do?

One thing is to reduce the amount of packaging that we carry on board. This may mean unwrapping food products to remove unnecessary packaging before leaving port — while still in an environment where the material can be recycled or properly disposed of. Perhaps combining smaller portions into fewer larger containers or replacing disposable packaging with reusable containers is warranted.

But eventually, there’s trash on board and it has to be dealt with. If you’re headed away from large population centers with sophisticated recycling programs and towards the islands, consider your options:
• Keep it on board
• Dispose of it on the island
• Toss it overboard.

There’s a practical limit to what you can keep on board, especially for longer voyages and smaller boats. There’s also a sanitation issue and the problems of smells and flies and such. Most of us just don’t want to carry all that stuff for six months and 6,000 miles.

You can dispose of things on the island. But how will they handle the trash? Will it be recycled? Very unlikely. Will it be incinerated? Probably not. Burnt in an open landfill? Good chance. Piled on a remote trash heap and left to the vagaries of wind and weather? Very likely.

And that leaves the toss-it-overboard option. Most readers of this magazine are well aware that a lot of plastic trash floats and is potentially harmful to marine animals. Plastic bags are probably the worst. But plastic bags can sink too if they have enough stuff in them. In these cases they often end up entangled in benthic organisms — deep-water corals, especially.

Glass bottles and metal cans, if open, will usually sink out of sight. But what happens on the sea floor? Steel cans don’t rust for a long, long time in the low-oxygen environment of the ocean bottom; no one knows how long an aluminum can will last. Bottles don’t just magically decompose back into their elements. Everything just remains on the sea floor.

The only thing I’m going to say is that when you buy something as simple and as common as a can of Coke, you take stewardship of that can. The responsibility for that can accrues to you whether you choose to acknowledge that fact or not. This is a completely different way of thinking than when we are on land where trash disappears into the garbage truck. In the end, you’ll decide what you think is best and your actions will have long-lasting ramifications, known and unknown.

-Jeff and Raine Williams circumnavigated (and then some) on their J/40 Gryphon. Jeff explores the world’s oceans at http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov.

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