Ready to receive your rubbish

A newly published guide could simplify requirements for marine litter reception facilities

By Michael Grey

Nobody likes to see rubbish floating in the sea, and you can probably argue that seafarers are more conscious than most of the need to stop what they are floating on being used as a gigantic rubbish receptacle.

Most of us have seen pictures of the floating rubbish that has been accumulated by the winds and ocean currents in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and that horrible sight ought to give everyone pause for thought. Most, of course, is generated from the shore and deposited in the sea via rivers; seafarers are more aware and better regulated, while most merchant ships generate very little rubbish in any case.

Research from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Council in the US, which has been studying what has become known as the Pacific ‘gyre’ of rubbish, has suggested that much of this plastic detritus has become almost permanent, with hundreds of different species, which presumably ‘emigrated’ from coasts, living on the floating debris in successful small colonies.

It is plastic litter that is the most worrying and longest-lasting element in the garbage that ends up in the sea and the IMO and FAO are doing their bit to stop it with a newly published guide to marine litter reception facilities. They recognise that it would be useful to bring some order and system into the current arrangements, where practically every port on earth has its own ‘customised’ arrangements for the collection and disposal of rubbish from ships.

The important element, every seafarer will suggest, is that whatever system is employed, it should be practical and easy for ships’ people to use. It also needs to be affordable, because if it is too complicated and costly, the ship’s operators will just instruct the master to take the garbage on to the next port, where it might be cheaper to land. That would not be much fun on a six-port rotation around the coast, forced to carry a whole lot of rancid rubbish bags smelling to high heaven on the afterdeck, waiting for a port that will take them at a reasonable cost.

Differing rules

But the disposal of rubbish can be necessarily complicated by quarantine regulations which are put in place to prevent the introduction of foreign diseases and pathogens arriving from overseas aboard ships. It is something that, in very many countries, is increasingly regulated and policed. That invariably means that seafarers on visiting ships are having to carefully sort out the various categories of garbage before it is collected by the port.

The new guide is primarily for port authorities who have the responsibility for the collection and safe disposal of rubbish landed by the visiting ships. They have the power to make the process easy, practical and affordable. But they can also make it excessively bureaucratic and over-regulated, with ridiculous amounts of form-filling and heavy fines levied on any ship which contravenes their complex regulations. And there are still many ports in the world which find life easier if they have a bye-law which prohibits any landing of rubbish from visiting ships, which does not exactly serve the cause of cleaner seas.

Of course, the biggest generators of wastes at sea will be the cruise ship fleet, but they have become adept at minimising what they need to land, using increasingly sophisticated on board waste-handling facilities, such as automatic sorting systems, compaction machinery and incineration. But because they are big purchasers of consumables, they are able to put pressure on their suppliers to provide packaging for goods that will not contribute to waste as much as it might. They will, for instance, require fewer liquids to be supplied in glass bottles and far less use of plastics, which might be ideas that can filter down to other shipping industry purchasers, even if the handling equipment cannot be justified on a normal commercial ship with its small crew. It would probably make a lot of sense to reduce packaging in the first place.