COLUMN | An awful lot of garbage [Grey Power]

The headline did not altogether signal a positive item of news. “Coastal creatures thriving on Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” it announced, the story in the London Daily Telegraph going on to explain that researchers from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Centre had discovered a surprising variety of marine coastal species living happily on plastic waste collected by wind and currents on what has become known as the Pacific Gyre. It is suggested that the permanent nature of this garbage, unlike naturally floating detritus like tree trunks, decays exceedingly slowly, so these various organisms that have hitched a ride on items of plastic from their coastal habitats are able to emigrate to a virtually permanent home amid this great circular coagulation of human generated waste.

It may not be that surprising. If you patrol the tide line in most parts of the world, you will find mussels and barnacles adhering to old plastic fish boxes and other items of plastic rubbish. I found a small but busy maritime habitat in a long-discarded seaboot only a few months ago. The researchers identified nearly 500 different species in waste recovered from the central Pacific, the findings seeming to please them quite a lot, although it is a reminder to all of us about the need to stop treating our seas and rivers as a convenient rubbish disposal and try and retrieve what is out there already. It is not something for which technological man can be proud.

“Maybe if enough people feel ashamed of such pollution there might be some action, but one shouldn’t hold one’s breath.”

A very noble effort by Maersk a couple of years ago saw them deploy some of their sizeable OSVs to the Pacific gyre to examine the practicality of cleaning up the rubbish that has accumulated, since plastic became such a convenient material for mankind. Those involved in the project concluded that it was not impractical to net the larger items and dispose of them, although the sheer size of the task and the area to be swept would require a substantial expenditure in money, time, and ships.

Quite who would pay for this effort would take the judgement of Solomon to determine. Even on the “polluter pays” principle as it would, probably only a tiny number of wholly landlocked countries, with almost no rivers, could deny some responsibility for this problem afflicting modern mankind. Maybe if enough people feel ashamed of such pollution there might be some action, but one shouldn’t hold one’s breath.

Perhaps less ambitious is the recently published IMO/FAO guidance document on Marine Litter reception facilities, which is designed to bring some international order into the rubbish disposal from ships, particularly that which is plastic and thus potentially more harmful. It is also a reminder to port authorities that they have a responsibility to provide adequate measures for their floating customers.

It is not the first effort in this respect. BIMCO has tried for some years to encourage rather more proactivity in provision, to make rubbish collection from ships rather less problematic than it is in some places.

“Today’s seafarers do not treat the sea as a dustbin and are notably careful not to dump anything overboard in contravention of MARPOL regulations.”

From the ship’s point of view, the procedures need to be easy to use, without onerous bureaucracy and affordable fees, which is often easier written than translated into practice. It is complicated by quarantine requirements, with the need to control “foreign-generated” wastes, although the average commercial vessel, with its small crew, does not generate a great volume of anything very much. Passenger ships are something else, although modern cruise monsters have sophisticated waste handling facilities aboard.

The issue of “affordability” is something else, although it is possibly better if the provision of waste services is integrated into port charges rather than something that penny-pinching ship operators can reject. I had a friend who was a master of a containership in an Atlantic service, whose bean-counting management required him to retain all his rubbish to be landed in the one port in his six-port European rotation, which did not directly charge for the service. The smell on his afterdeck in the summer months was not pleasant.

I am told repeatedly that today’s seafarers, unlike those of old, do not treat the sea as a dustbin and are notably careful not to dump anything overboard in contravention of MARPOL regulations. Fundamentally, however, it is not about the “regs” but a sense of responsibility that has become established in the minds of the individual. And that is real progress.

Michael Grey

Maritime industry legend, and former long-term editor of Lloyds List, Michael Grey kicks off each month with topical issues affecting the maritime world at large.