Plastic Free July On a Boat

Long before movements like ‘Plastic Free July‘ and ‘Zero Waste‘ hit their stride we were been mindful of how much waste we produce on board. Perhaps this is because we live a little closer to our garbage than most people. There is no opportunity to leave trash out on the curb for the garbage man to take away, so we have to live with whatever we throw away until we can find a suitable way to dispose of it.

While on passage this means having a bag of trash sitting in a locker for several days until we make port and probably turn it over to quarantine during our check-in clearance procedures. When we are island hopping we either wait until we get to a larger urban centre that actually has garbage collection, which are few and far between, or we take it ashore and burn it ourselves.

Lacking infrastructure many poorer countries simply don't have the resources to deal with garbage.
Lacking infrastructure many poorer countries simply don’t have the resources to deal with garbage.

None of these options are ideal, but they are reality when sailing in poorer countries where few people have access to power, running water and proper housing . In those places things like trash collection take a back seat to more important issues such as basic education and health care.

So, what’s the best way to deal with garbage on a boat?

Simple. Try and create as little as possible.

This is not easy, but with a little effort and pre-planning we can whittle our monthly garbage down to one small plastic bag while sailing. Room for improvement? Certainly, but we often do not have the choices and opportunities that those living in the west have; bulk stores where you can bring your own containers, package-free or natural liquid soap, toilet paper not sold wrapped in plastic and ingredients to make DIY laundry detergent, just to name a few. So, we end up having plastic on board no matter how hard we try. We haven’t a regular mailing address for the past 10 years, so we can’t order those things online (not to mention shipping “green” products half way around the world has it’s own set of problems.)

That doesn’t mean we don’t have choices.

We buy what we can in the largest quantities possible to reduce packaging. Flour, sugar, oats, toilet paper, cooking oil, laundry and dish soap, shampoo etc.. Often this means stocking up for 4 or 6 months, because that’s the next time we’ll be in a big city where bulk packaged items are sold. Bulk items are then emptied into air tight storage containers and we dispose of the plastic in the big city that is equip to deal with it. Recently we have found coffee and rice that we can buy in bulk, but without sophisticated digital scales we have to take along our own reusable ziplocks. Not prefect, but better than nothing.

Sometimes you have to improvise when buying items in bulk in the islands
Sometimes you have to improvise when buying items in bulk in the islands

We make our own water on board using a reverse osmosis watermaker. Not only does this eliminate the need to rely on the water sources of the small communities we visit (many of which rely on rain catchment) but it means that we eliminate the need to carry water in plastic bottles.

Measuring the dissolved solids in our watermaker water
Measuring the dissolved solids in our watermaker water

I wasn’t brought up using paper napkins, paper towel, paper plates, plastic straws, utensils and plastic wrap, so they have never had a home on our boat. Besides, paper products take up so much storage space, which we have little of, and seem ridiculous on a boat where unexpected, and unseen, leaks happen all the time, especially in those storage areas. Not to mention how expensive such items are out island…I’ll save that money for beer, thank you.

That beer, by the way, is bought in glass bottles whenever possible. Yes they are heavier than cans and take longer to cool down but countries that sell their beer in glass bottles usually have an exchange program in place. You pay a small deposit for the bottles and continually bring your empties back to the depot, where you pay for the beer and simply swap out your dead soldiers for full bottles. When you’re ready to leave the country you turn in your empty bottles and get back your deposit. No garbage, save for the caps, and bottles are often much cheaper than cans because of this.

Beer bottle exchange in the Philippines means that cold beer at the end of the day is almost zero waste
Beer bottle exchange in the Philippines means that cold beer at the end of the day is almost zero waste

The biggest way that we reduce our garbage is by reducing the amount of single use plastic bags we bring on board. This happens mainly when we are provisioning. Simply bringing mesh produce bags, reusable shopping bags and reusable containers for meats means that we usually come home without a plastic bag.

In countries like the Philippines, recent rated one of the world’s leading plastic polluters, this is no easy feat. In fact, it can we down right exhausting, constantly having to repeat “No plastic!” 3 or 4 times to every vendor that you buy from. However, when you discover that is it estimated that “74 per cent of plastic leakage comes from waste that has actually been collected” there doesn’t seem like there is a choice.

A daily reminder why we make the effort to be as plastic free as possible.
A daily reminder why we make the effort to be as plastic free as possible.

Whether you live on a boat or ashore living completely plastic free in the modern age is impossible. (You’re reading this on a piece of technology that is made of plastic.) Making the effort to reduce, as much as possible, the amount of plastics we bring on board is something that we have practiced since we bought Kate 10 years ago, not just during the month of July.



2 Comments Add yours

  1. Ann says:

    Thank you for your honest report on ” Plastic Waste” we are currently purchasing our first boat (in Sydney, Australia) and very interested in learning from people like yourselves the best possible way to minimise our waste. So any cruising tips are welcome.

    1. Heather Francis says:

      Thanks for reading and congratulations on the (almost) new boat!! Those beginning days are a jumble of confusion and excitement and looking back I know we bought WAY more “stuff” than we needed. My one piece of advice about minimizing waste now would be just to live, kinda upscale “glamping style”, for a bit and figure out what you need and don’t need, use and don’t use, thought you could never live without but realize you can. You are also in a perfect spot to acquire items that will last years, are produced ethically and make you and the planet feel good. Where you sail after Aus will determine how you provision for the long run, but something tells me you got time to figure that out. Any questions feel free to send an email, I hope you stayed tuned, more “Less is More” topics coming up!
      Safe Sailing,

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