Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Trash Matters in Remote Areas

There are a lot of differences between sailing in civilized areas and sailing in “the boonies”; dealing with trash is one of them. While in the Eastern Caribbean, the ABC islands and various coastal areas Mark and I took our garbage bags to shore, on the San Blas islands no trash containers are to be found. Just like when at sea, cruisers in this remote area have to dispose of their garbage themselves in the most proper way. The question is: how?

Organic Waste

This category contains fruit peels, egg shells and vegetable cores; basically all the produce parts we don’t consume. It goes overboard when the tide is outgoing or the wind is off shore, and at a time nobody is around enjoying the clear waters. It is best to cut the bigger items, like banana or plantain peels, into smaller pieces before disposing them. The organic waste deteriorates quickly or is eaten by sea creatures.


In the San Blas islands we are lucky with the beer and soda cans: the Kuna Indians collect them and sell them to the Colombian trading boats stopping at their village. Anytime vendors pass by Irie or we visit one of the towns, our beverage cans are received with a smile. Other cans are opened on both sides and sank in very deep water while underway. They will dissolve over time.


Simplistically speaking, glass is made out of sand and might eventually return to sand. The quickest way to make that happen is to shatter the glass and make sure it sinks to the bottom of the ocean or the deep passages in between islands. On Irie glass jars are washed and recycled as storage containers.


This is the most controversial piece of trash. When we are in a remote area for just a few weeks, we hang on to our plastic bottles until we reach civilization again. If we are out here for longer periods of time, a trash burn takes place and other cruisers are invited. We make a fire under the high water line of a leeward beach (bug spray required) and burn the plastic trash. This is exactly what the Kunas and many other cultures do as well. The leftover ashes are washed away in the sea water. Any parts that didn’t burn are taken back to the boat and disposed of properly at another time. On Irie we also use cleaned plastic bottles to store used cooking oil, used engine oil or other liquids.


Paper items, egg cartons, cardboard and (thin) toilet tissue deteriorate quickly in water, especially when shredded. We dispose of paper the same way we treat organic waste, ideally on a passage. We hang on to cardboard to start fires.


Items that don’t fit in one of the previous categories (like batteries, used engine oil, aluminum foil) are stored in a separate garbage bag in the anchor locker and taken to the mainland whenever we reach it again.

Disposing of boat garbage properly is a hot topic and one not many people like to talk about. It was a concern of ours when arriving in Kuna Yala, but other conscious cruisers set examples. When Mark and I cruised in inhabited areas (without recycling options, which is most of the Caribbean) the previous years, our shopping bag sized garbage bin was full every two or three days. Most of the space was taken up by organic materials and cans. Using the methods described above, it takes about a week or longer to fill our trash bag with plastic items and tetrapak boxes (in which milk and wine are sold). These bags are stored in the anchor locker until the next trash burn, while the cockpit is temporarily littered with two other bags: one “for the Kunas” and one “to be sunk”.


jane morejoy said...

Thanks for this - as you mentioned, it's one of those topics that is not often discussed. We haven't yet been in places remote enough to burn plastic - I imagine it stinks something fierce? I've started to think that buying something plastic is like adopting a pet or a child - you become responsible for that bit of plastic for the rest of its "life.". Makes me more careful in my purchases!

Liesbet said...

Very good point, Jane! Avoiding plastic, if possible, is a great way to reduce trash! In Europe and the "French Caribbean" they don't hand out plastic bags at the grocery store anymore for years. You just have to remember to bring your own bags or use boxes. And, here in the San Blas, vegetable boats swing by cruising boats frequently: they weigh the produce and hand it to you to put away inside, without bags. Or you hand them a basket to put stuff in.

We never smelled the burning of our plastic, since we stand upwind from it... :-) The amazing thing is, that it takes no time to go from garbage bag to ashes. Burning two weeks of trash from three boats took less than finishing one drink (less than ten minutes).