Long before Al Gore's slide show marathon awakened America, Walt Kelly's comic strip, Pogo, sounded the alarm: "We have met the enemy and he is us." As boaters, we are often the first to see the repercussions of bad environmental choices. Every little bit counts, and how we live on the boat and what we require of those who help us maintain her really can make a difference.
Here are eight areas to consider for improving your boat's "green score." In future articles we will investigate the science behind some of these tips and the nuts and bolts of "how to do it."
One: Use Your Holding Tank
Number one on every boater's green list should be the proper disposal of sewage. This single measure can make a significant difference in the coastal environment because untreated waste has a three-fold impact: it is visually distasteful, it presents a health hazard, and it creates nitrogen pollution which can be threatening to aquatic life.
Further, pumping untreated black water overboard is illegal. The Federal Clean Vessel Act Grant Program prohibits boaters from discharging raw sewage—which is what spews out of most Type 1 holding tanks—within all navigable U.S. waters. In very fragile and sensitive regions, specific "No Discharge Zones" have been designated where it is illegal to dump even treated sewage.
Granted, the concept of a holding tank is unpleasant. But the unpleasantness can be minimized by keeping the tank and hoses clean and in optimal condition. At every pump-out, purge the tank by pumping the heads to send many more gallons of sea water into the tank. And then pump out again—until the outflow is clear.
Two: Pump-Out At Designated Stations
Finding and using pump-out facilities should be as high a priority as fueling. The newer dock-side systems and pump-out vessels make the process relatively painless. Even if you have an onboard treatment system, consider every place you cruise a "closed head" environment.
The Clean Vessel Grant Program has been the main instigator behind the proliferation of pump-out stations and boats; the EPA program provides reimbursement to marinas that install facilities or communities that support pump-out boats. When facilities have been underwritten, the costs are either free or nominal, and "self-service" is the rule. In areas where it's left up to the marinas, the quality, availability, and cost of pump-out varies widely. If you don't like the fee or the service, take your pump-out—and your fuel—business elsewhere.
Three: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Managing trash on a boat—especially on a long cruise with infrequent landfalls—is a major issue. Even if you are out for the weekend or the day, dragging a big black plastic bag of trash and garbage to the dumpster is never a good feeling. Work at reducing the size of that bag. A lot of us are careful at home, but when we get to the boat, all those good practices take a holiday.
A choice as simple as buying variable-sheet paper towels could cut your consumption in half. And using dish towels and microfiber cloths could eliminate those paper towels completely.
Use cloth napkins with unique napkin rings (replace them every few meals), give each crew member his own color-coded water bottle, swap individually bottled sodas for sun tea or some other "make on board" drink, improve your water system to eliminate all those plastic gallon jugs, and use rechargeable batteries.
Four: Manage Your Direct Discharge Gray Water
If you are discharging gray water from the sinks and showers directly overboard, then it becomes critical to control everything used on the boat that might find its way down one of the drains. First, look at the possibility of plumbing the gray water into the holding tank. If the tank's size removes that option, a comprehensive review of the onboard cleaning supplies and toiletries becomes crucial.
Replace commercial cleaners with non-toxic, biodegradable products. Generally, the galley will yield sufficient "natural" cleaning supplies to keep below decks fresh and sparkling—baking soda, white vinegar, lemon juice, salt, borax, and, for those really tough jobs, maybe a little Bon Ami. Next, look at your soaps, shampoos, and conditioners. Many gentle, environmentally-friendly personal care products are now on the market.
Then work at simply reducing the amount of gray water your vessel is pumping overboard. Reduce dishwashing by color coding cups and glasses so your crew won't keep reaching for a clean glass. Colorful scrunchies or skid-proof "footies" work well as markers, too.
Five: Support Designated Clean Marinas And Boatyards
As we all know, a boatyard can be a dirty place. Boat maintenance and storage can pollute adjacent waters and impair the air quality. Contaminants include dust from hull maintenance operations, solvents from engine repair shops, petroleum from careless fueling practices, and heavy metals from antifouling paints. These pollutants are either deposited directly into waterways or are carried in by storm water runoff. Clearly, boatyards and marinas also need to be environmentally sensitive.
One of the major initiatives of the National Coastal Management Program is the Designated or Certified Clean Marina Program—a federal-state partnership. It is managed by NOAA's Coastal Programs Division and executed at the state level. Each state that has instituted a program has put its own spin on the process.
Before you give a marina or boatyard your business, ask if they are a Clean Marina—or if they are at least applicants working toward certification. That will please those that are—and send a message to those that are not.
Six: Use Environmentally-Friendly Boat Maintenance Practices
Be a "clean boater." Take care during oil changes and always use an absorbent "collar" when fueling. Have a spill-containment kit on board and close at hand. Minimize oil discharge from the bilge. Keep your engines tuned.
Take a hard look at your bucket full of cleaning supplies and read the labels: are these non-toxic, ecologically safe products? "Biodegradable" is not enough; be sure that the product is also non-toxic. Rethink how you use and treat antifouling bottom paint. There are new, environmentally safer alternatives. Dispose of all wastes—hazardous and household—at designated shoreside recycling and trash centers.
Seven: The Green Galley—Better Galley Practices
Chill down the refrigerator with a block of ice and freeze everything freezable before leaving home. The food will keep much longer as it slowly defrosts, and with the block ice, will help the always-challenged onboard cooling system.
Stock the pantry and fridge with quick-cooking whole grains and pastas and multi-purpose foods that can also be used as home remedies and cleaning supplies. Store the drinks in a separate cooler on deck or below to minimize the constant opening caused by fridge shopping. Use fuel-friendly cookware like a wok and pressure cooker and try the new silicone bakeware, which neither rattles nor rusts. Shop with string bags, sturdy shopping bags, and boat bags. Store produce in reusable bags, such as Ever Fresh Green Bags.
Eight: Good Water—Getting The Best Water From Your Water Tanks
Replace those heavy, "live-forever" plastic gallon jugs and cases of individual bottles of spring water with "boat water." Don't laugh! It's really possible to make tank water clean and palatable.
Start by aggressively cleaning the water tank—including calcium build-up. Then maintain that condition by flushing periodically with a non-toxic antibacterial, antifungal product. Put an outboard filter on the water hose that runs between the spigot and the tank, and depending on your water source, add a water softening system. Put a filtration system under the sink. Finally, store the filtered water in a Brita pitcher in the refrigerator or the cockpit cooler. This triple-filtered "boat water" will usually pass the most demanding smell and taste test.
Becoming a greener boater with a greener boat does not have to be complicated or challenging. You simply have to make the conscious decision to change some of your onboard routines and be willing to perhaps try some new ways of cooking, cleaning, and provisioning. And supporting others who are making green decisions will go a long way in having a good influence on the cruising community. Stay tuned to future newsletters for additional articles on how you can become a greener boater.