New rules on trash disposal at sea address a growing problem

My first seagoing job was as a deck hand with a large West Coast towing company. As the junior member of the crew, I was in charge of “sanitary duties” such as taking care of the trash. On a trip from Los Angeles to Portland, Ore., with an oil barge, I remember throwing every bag of trash over the side. As the black plastic bags floated away, some began to sink, but others just bobbed up and down with the waves on the surface and stayed afloat the whole time I watched. I figured that those garbage bags would ultimately just “disappear” unnoticed in that vast expanse of water.

Commercial ships and boats generate garbage, a lot of it. Just one modern cruise ship creates about eight tons of solid waste every week. In the mid-1970s, the National Academy of Sciences reported that around 1.4 billion pounds of trash were dumped into the oceans each year by ships and boats. Much of this garbage takes years to decompose. Aluminum cans take 200 to 500 years to break down in seawater, plastic bottles around 450 years.

Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration first identified the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex) in 1988. The vortex is a huge concentration of plastics, chemical sludge and debris moving with the currents — both above and below the surface of the water. Some estimates have put it at twice the size of Texas. Ocean pollution has increased so much in recent years that similar huge trash vortexes have been identified in the Atlantic and Indian oceans as well.

The U.N. Environment Program estimates that there are 13,000 pieces of plastic trash floating in every square kilometer of ocean water, and a recent report out of Scripps Institution of Oceanography states that nearly one out of 10 ocean fish studied had plastic waste in their stomachs. Japanese researchers from Tokyo University have verified that cancer-causing compounds found in plastic are widespread in ocean waters. There is now concern that plastic chemicals are making their way up the food chain and into the seafood we eat.

In response to the problem of garbage at sea, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL 73/78), Annex V, came into force in 1988. For the first time, there were restrictions on where and what type of trash could be dumped into the oceans. The first change merchant mariners saw was a garbage placard on every commercial ship and boat over 12 meters (just over 39 feet) in length. These placards detailed what and where shipboard garbage could be thrown overboard. Annex V also established seven special environmentally sensitive areas, such as the Mediterranean and Caribbean, where aside from foodstuffs no dumping of trash was permitted.

The next phase of regulating vessel garbage came in 1995 in an amendment to MARPOL 73/78. This included a requirement for a garbage plan on board, and mandated the use of a garbage logbook, an official document required on every vessel over 400 tons and all those with over 15 persons in the crew. Since the implementation of this amendment to Annex V, it has become routine on commercial vessels for the galley hand, deck hand or boatswain to call the bridge and ask if it is OK to throw trash over the side, and then call back when it is done with the amount and type of refuse disposed of. All of this is then required to be noted in the garbage log, with a signed verification by a ship’s officer — usually the mate on watch or the master.

Last year the International Maritime Organization approved the newest amendment to Annex V, which will come into force on Jan. 1, 2013. This ban on the dumping of almost all solid waste at sea will include cardboard, rags, glass, cans, dunnage, paper and many other items currently allowed. Not being able to throw garbage over the side will definitely change the way we work at sea, considering that crewmembers on commercial vessels still generate between three to five pounds of trash per person each day. From my perspective, dealing effectively with the new rules will be a matter of rethinking, reducing and educating.

Most of us have experienced ordering an item, only to have it arrive wrapped in so much packaging that the pile of garbage to throw away is much bigger than the product itself. With the new law soon coming into effect, ship suppliers and vendors need to rethink their packaging, with a mind to minimizing the amount of leftover trash. Shipping companies will also need to take into consideration that almost all garbage will have to be stored on board, possibly for weeks at a time. As a result, I see the use of compactors and incinerators becoming commonplace on commercial vessels.

A number of years ago, passengers filmed crewmembers throwing trash over the side in a prohibited area off of Florida, resulting in a $500,000 fine for Princess Cruise Lines. When the new, more stringent MARPOL amendment comes into effect, it will be in the interest of companies to make sure that their employees fully understand the regulations. I believe that vessel operators should consider hiring solid waste experts to give advice on how to reduce shipboard garbage, improve/streamline the handling of vessel trash at sea, and conduct classes for company officers and crews on how to implement these procedures.

Most mariners I have sailed with respect the ocean. From my experience, it’s hard to go to sea and not come to love the pristine beauty it offers. That’s why a recently published study, which estimates that the amount of trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch alone has increased 100-fold since the 1970s, is a wakeup call for all of us. There is no doubt that with the implementation of the new MARPOL amendment, merchant mariners will be leading the way toward the day when no garbage ever fouls our oceans again.

Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin’.

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at

By Professional Mariner Staff