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What to do with Garbage and Trash While Cruising?

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We were attempting to clear into Babylon after one of our circumnavigations, when the U.S. Custom’s official began quizzing us about our trash and garbage. Evidently I looked confused because he handed my wife Carolyn a booklet that explained the legal difference. Carolyn knitted her brow as she read, while I twiddled my thumbs. Growing impatient, I finally said, “Well?”

“As best as I can determine,” Carolyn said, “our boat is trash—we’re garbage!”

Ah, dirt-dwellers! They are always adding more rules about garbage (organics) and trash (inorganics). Shipboard waste is an increasing problem for the cruising sailor. Here’s how we handle our trash and garbage aboard Ganesh, our 43-foot ketch.

First off, we never throw plastic overboard—not the slightest bit.

Second, we do everything possible never to cast a sheen upon the water.

Thus, we never intentionally dump fuel or oil into the water. (Notice my ‘possible’ and ‘intentionally’ qualifiers here.)

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Why use these qualifiers?

Because to be alive is to pollute. I’d love to tell you that in my 57 years of living aboard that I’ve never spilled a drop of fuel in the water—but I can’t. All humans poop occasionally. We might like to pretend otherwise and believe that Mother Theresa’s defecations are intrinsically different than Charlie Manson’s—but they’re not.

Mine stinks. So does yours.

I have a friend who owns a house on a bay in Grenada where I often anchor. He likes me and I like him. We often have dinner together. There are three cars in his driveway; a motorcycle, and two lawn mowers in his garage. Oh, yeah: he has a weed whacker and leaf blower in their too. His large house is air-conditioned on a setting called ‘morgue’. He has a giant refrigerator, a freezer, and twin icemakers.

Because he lives in ‘de islands, mon,’ he also has a diesel generator—oh, and a portable Honda gasoline generator too.

His house looks great; one local kid mows the lawn (and fertilizes it) every week, while another local kid drops in to soap-up the cars.

Yes, he has a jet ski and little speedboat to fish out of.

“You cruisers are awful,” he occasionally says to me. “You don’t pay taxes and you poop everywhere!”

My point is that he doesn’t see his own pollution. He only sees the other guy’s pollution. We’re all like that, to greater and lesser degrees.

Of course, my saying “we never throw plastics overboard” is easier said than done.

Okay, let’s say I am drinking a Coke in a plastic bottle. Let’s also say I am on a 48-day offshore passage—which is how long it took us to sail nonstop from the Panama Canal to Papeete, Tahiti.

After I finish drinking, the first thing I do is to rinse out the bottle with salt water and toss it somewhere below. Later, we re-rinse it (fresh water this time), stow the cap in a different spot, and carefully slice up the plastic bottle (with a pair of small industrial tin snips) so that it takes up minimal space. Then we stow these compacted pieces in an airtight container.

Thus we burn our plastics to ash.
We take them to a beach and dig hole below the high tide line. Then we burn them with the help of a little gas or kerosene.

Alas, most of our food comes in plastic jars, plastic sacks, plastic containers—plastic/plastic/plastic!

This is especially a problem in America—where plastic is INSIDE of plastic that is WRAPPED in plastic and grouped into SIX PACKS with plastic.

Thus, each food jar and sack must be thoroughly cleaned, cut, and stowed in an airtight, watertight container.

Why? Because after a couple of hours in the tropics my onboard garbage will start to stink to high heaven … even the salt water will stink (like low tide) if the drops collect.

This requires considerable time and effort on our part. Sure, if we’re just day sailing we can temporarily toss a bag of tightly sealed garbage in the dinghy astern—not so, in 24-foot seas on the way to New Zealand.

Speaking of New Zealand, the customs officials there are particularly serious. They confiscate most cooked and uncooked foods—fresh food, frozen, preserved, packaged, or dried. Home-canning is also a no-no. Meat, dairy products, fish, and honey—they steal them all. Plants? Forgetaboutit! Fruits, flowers, fungi, cane, bamboo, straw, wood …”

No, you don’t clear into New Zealand lightly—not if you’re on a tight budget and don’t like to watch (on an empty stomach) all your expensive food be carted away for incineration.

My health, of course, is important me. Thus I try to eat an apple a day to ‘keep the doctor away’.

In New Zealand they sell Pacific Rose apples—so crisp, so juicy, so flavorful. Carolyn bought many pounds of them just as we cleared out to sail north to Tonga. She wrapped each one individually in newspaper to help preserve them.

Alas, the customs guys in Tonga confiscated all that were left when we cleared in there. Bummer! Oh, well. That’s life. So that afternoon we went to the local market to buy more apples. Good news, they’d just gotten some in, juicy ones, prewrapped in newspapers from NZ!

How convenient, eh!

Not only must your waste plastics be clean—they must be well-stowed.

We’ve tried to put them in plastic bags and stow them on the aft deck, but we ripped those plastic bags while reefing our mizzen or working on the aft deck.

So the bottom line is—you have to thoroughly clean and compact your plastics.

So much for plastics. What about organics?

Offshore, we deep-six it—sailor-talk for tossing it overboard.

Basically, we have two modes: coastal, where we’ll be into a harbor soon, and offshore mode, where we are in deep water far offshore and won’t be in port anytime soon.

Example: We spent four and half months in the Indian Ocean between garbage bins. That’s a long time.

We have a bottle-bottom-buster, a heavy metal rod with a knob on one end. Every few days offshore, Carolyn puts on gloves, dons her safety glasses, and sits on the aft deck to shatter the bottoms out of her wine bottles over the side. (Yes, you gotta use the eye protection and gloves. You don’t want a shard of glass in your eye offshore!)

  • All galley organics are NEVER mixed in with our plastic garbage offshore (additional cleaning)—but rather collected in a special pot and periodically tossed over.
  • Metal (rusts) and aluminum cans (corrode) are multi-punctured and deep-sixed. This means that, even if you toss the metal and glass, you will still have a large pile of plastics. Luckily, we have a place to stow this belowdecks—most boats aren’t so lucky.

However, we certainly couldn’t stow four and half months of plastics while limin’ (relaxing) in Chagos.

Thus we burn our plastics to ash.


We take them to a beach and dig hole below the high tide line. Then we burn them with the help of a little gas or kerosene.

We’ve done this repeatedly in the same area and later dug up that area—either finding nothing or only a slight discoloration in the sand. Of course, ALL the plastic must be ash and sometimes that last little bit can be stubborn, especially if it gets wet.

Ideally, of course, it would be cool to leave and arrive at the same exact weight—to leave nothing out there but bubbles. But we live and sail in the real world, and this is how we manage our waste while on passage.

Cap’n Fatty Goodlander and his wife Carolyn recently finished their third circumnavigation. Fatty is the author of Chasing the Horizon and numerous other marine books. His latest, Storm Proofing your Boat, Gear, and Crew, is out now. Visit: fattygoodlander.com

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Cap'n Fatty Goodlander
Cap'n Fatty Goodlanderhttp://fattygoodlander.com/
Cap’n Fatty Goodlander has lived aboard for 53 of his 60 years, and has circumnavigated twice. He is the author of Chasing the Horizon and numerous other marine books. His latest, Buy, Outfit, and Sail is out now. Visit: fattygoodlander.com

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