Most people today are concerned about proper respect for and care of the environment. While this often shows up in debates over climate change and the ways to combat it, everyone should be interested in taking proper care of our world.
Of course, given that it’s summertime, which means boat excursions for lots of people, some of us might find particular interest in how to enjoy sailing and the open waves in ways that will not harm fragile marine ecosystems.
Thankfully, there are all sorts of information online about what we might call “eco-friendly boating.” Here are ten ways to make your next boat trip both fun and environmentally conscious.
Eco Tip #1: Avoid gas and oil spills
Avoiding spillage or leakage of oil and gas is perhaps the most important way for boating to be environmentally friendly. Indeed, the National Academy of Sciences says that as much as 85% of the oil that enters North American waters is due to human negligence or activity—including the spillage and emissions from vehicles like boats.
Oil spills can be extremely difficult to clean up and can be extremely dangerous for the environment and marine life. Making sure you're fueling is safe for the environment can
be simplified with these tips:
- Always fuel your boat at the dock, never while in the water.
- Do not top off your gas tank; engine heat causes the gasoline to expand and will create overflow, which will then leak into the water.
- Use oil-absorbent rags, mats, or other items to safely catch any oil that may leak onto the boat’s floor. (They must be disposed of in a hazardous waste facility at the marina when they are fully saturated.)
- Know how much gasoline your tank can hold to avoid overfilling it.
- Watch for any cracks, fissures, or other openings that may cause leaks. Repair them before your trip.
- Jerrycans (portable oil cans taken onto the boat) are permitted, but must meet certain regulations to avoid spilling. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates approximately 70,000 gallons of fuel are spilled by jerrycans accidentally each year.
Any oil, petroleum, or gasoline that leaves a sheen on the water must be reported immediately, whether you spilled it or simply discovered it (or saw someone else do it).
The U.S. Coast Guard has set up a hotline that can deal with spills safely and effectively. Do not attempt to clean the spill yourself (and do not make it worse by diluting it with detergent or other chemicals, which only causes the oil to sink and cause more damage); call the National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802. They will be able to help.
Proper avoidance of gas and oil spills is the first step to a safe and enjoyable use of your boat.
Find out more about how to safely fuel a boat (including a video) here.
Eco Tip #2: Properly dispose of sewage
Nobody likes to talk about it. But human nature entails that someone somewhere, will need to use the restroom while on a boat (particularly if said person is a pregnant woman experiencing morning sickness).
Having an onboard toilet is a great advantage of modernity, but how do you use it safely? Here’s how:
- There are three main ways to deal with human waste on a boat. One is to use toilet with a marine sanitation device (more below). The next is to use a porta-potty (which doesn’t qualify as a toilet and must not dispose of waste within a three-mile limit). Finally, some boaters find composting toilets (likethese) to be a helpful alternative. Composting toilets don’t use a holding tank for the waste or have to be pumped out so they can be an attractive and easy method.
- Marine Sanitation Devices (MSD) are toilets attached to a holding tank. There are three kinds. The most common, called Type III, has to be emptied at a pumpout facility. The other types are able to pump treated sewage overboard (Type I is used for offshore recreational boats, while Type II are found on large commercial vessels).
- It is illegal to dump raw, untreated sewage in any body of water that is navigable and within three miles of the shore or inland waters like lakes, rivers, and ponds. Some areas even prohibit the dumping of treated sewage; these are called No Discharge Zones and they can be found by checking with the Environmental Protection Agency’s master list.
Eco Tip #3: Be proactive
Much of what needs to be done to keep your boat safe for use can be done ahead of time, before you’re even on the water. A little planning ahead can be really useful:
- Check for any leaks or damage to the boat.
- Ensure bilges are clean and dry; address any leaks or overflow from the pump.
- Clean and grease electrical systems and make sure they are not frayed or worn.
- Make sure the propeller is working properly. A damaged propeller will require more fuel and will cost more money to operate, in addition to the effect it will have on the environment. (Check your impeller if you have a jet drive.)
- Fill the gas tank before you leave.
- If you have a glass-bottomed boat, give the glass a good waxing. This will prevent the buildup of debris and other detritus on the glass, which will reduce your need to use harmful chemicals when cleaning the boat afterwards.
- Check for leaks in the gearcase and that the oil is not contaminated.
These and other commonsense tips will go a long way to ensuring a healthy, safe trip for all.
Eco Tip #4: Avoid greywater
“Greywater” is different from blackwater (sewage water) in that it consist of the untreated water that comes from your onboard sinks, showers, washing machine, dishwasher, and the wastewater from cleaning the boat.
This kind of used water frequently has chemicals in it that are harmful to the environment—to the point that some states have determined greywater is a pollutant and is considered sewage. To avoid its impact on the environment, try the following:
- Do as much laundering, bathing, and dishwashing at onshore facilities at the marina.
- Use low-flow showerheads or on-demand faucets.
- Consider untreated water as waste and discharge if more than three miles from land, if you can’t retain it for a pumpout facility.
- Use environmentally-friendly cleaning products.
- Clean your boat as much as possible with freshwater.
Eco Tip #5: NEVER toss trash in the ocean
We’ve all seen the pictures of fish or other sea critters caught in six-pack holders or plastic bags. Plastic especially is a dangerous intruder to the marine world because it never completely degrades; it only breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces that then adversely affect the animals and plant life underwater.
Aluminum soda cans don’t fare much better, as by some estimates they can take five hundred years to degrade. The easiest way to protect the environment here is to just never, ever, EVER throw your trash overboard. Keep a big garbage bag handy that you can safely dispose of when back on land.
Eco Tip #6: Clean with eco-friendly products
This is more of an issue than you might think. But scrubbing, spraying, and the other activities that go into cleaning can create runoff, chemical clouds, and other interactions with the environment that can be very harmful and destructive. (Windex may look blue, but it has no business being in the ocean!)
Most boats can be cleaned with a stiff brush and a hose full of fresh water; if you want to be more thorough, many brands offer green, safe cleaning products for you to use. The EPA has created the Safer Choice label to identify products that have been rigorously tested by EPA scientists to ensure none of the ingredients will hurt the environment. Start there.
Or, go here for products specifically designed for boat cleaning and tips on how to best use them.
Eco Tip #7: Avoid copper bottom-paint
Because your boat’s bottom is the part that is in most direct contact with the water, it’s an important but sometimes forgotten aspect of environmentally-friendly boating.
Because boats come into contact with many thousands of organisms and creatures with each trip, it’s essential to protect the boat from wear—but it’s also essential to protect the environment.
In the past as well as today, the “antifouling” paints used on boat bottoms most commonly utilized high levels of copper oxide. The copper’s retarding effect on cell metabolism effectively prevented organisms like barnacles and others from growing on the boat, but the copper also can leach into the marine environment and handicap or even kill many organisms.
To protect your boat while also not being a threat to marine ecosystems, it’s best to use an alternative paint, one that has been endorsed by the EPA. You can find out more about those options here.
Eco Tip #8: Have the right engine
In the years since private recreational boat use became popular, it is not surprising to learn that technology has advanced. (Shocker!). This is relevant because the engines that were popular during the personal-yacht heydays, called “two-stroke” engines, have been found to be drastically unsafe for the environment.
They use far more fuel, which also creates more exhaust, and they spill as much as thirty percent of unused fuel directly into the water! Buying a modern four-stroke engine will avert these negatives, in addition to being smoother and more enjoyable to use.
Make sure you are using the right size engine for your boat, as well; a smaller engine in a bigger boat will use more fuel and as such be less environmentally-friendly.
Eco Tip #9: Be cautious with sunscreen
Avoiding careless chemical intrusion extends even to your sunscreen. Did you know that? Making sure you don’t roast like a lobster while enjoying the water is very important, but the wrong sunscreen can adversely affect marine life, particularly if you’re the type that enjoys swimming or doing cannonballs off the side of your boat.
The chemical oxybenzone is used in many bands of sunscreen and can be toxic to fish and other marine life; check the ingredients in your sunscreen and use brands that rely on zinc or titanium dioxide, like Badger or Suntegrity.
Modern man has created many nifty things, including the ability to easily and creatively enjoy the many aquatic locations that beautify and sustain our earth. Understanding how to do this while also respecting and protecting the fragile marine ecosystems we enter when on boats will not only make our trips more enjoyable, but will help us rest in the knowledge that we have helped, not harmed, the wonderful world that is ours to enjoy.