Eco Friendly Home Maintenance

Published on March 13th, 2009 | by Stephanie Evans


Responsibly Managing Waste on Boating Trips

Imagine crystal blue waters glinting off the bow, a soft breeze rustling the sails above your head, the sun warming your back on the deck. What could be more relaxing, rejuvenating, and eco-friendly than a weekend spent aboard a ship, gently rocked by the ocean?
Every boating excursion, no matter how exhilarating and beautiful, produces a certain level of waste– whether it’s solid waste (like food, paper, and cans), pollution from engines, or “gray water” from showers and sinks. However, by far, the most sensitive, unsightly, and unpleasant type of waste to deal with is “black water,” or sewage, which is produced by human nature and contains bacteria, pathogens, and nutrients that can be damaging to the health of our costal waters– and the people who swim or scuba dive in them.


Boating at Sunset

In the past, there was little concern as to where onboard black water went, as most boat’s septic tanks led directly to the ocean. However, upon discovering that the concentrated dumping of raw human waste causes water pollution, spreads disease, contaminates shellfish beds, and contributes “unsightly floatables,” the Environmental Protection Agency passed the Clean Water Act, requiring all inland and costal water boats to equip themselves with Coast Guard certified sanitation systems. These sanitation systems, known as Marine Sanitation Devices (MSDs), usually consist of an installed head (toilet), a waste treating device, and/or a holding tank.

However, this does not completely remedy the issue of water pollution. Except in federally designated No Dumping Areas (NDAs), MSDs do not completely eliminate waste discharge; they simply contain it until a pump out station or the required three-mile offshore limit can be reached. Some MSDs chemically treat the raw sewage to reduce odor, however, this means that upon discharging the “treated” waste, these MSDs also discharge chemicals into the surrounding water. On top of that, many MSDs still discharge “treated” waste with bacteria counts much higher than allowable under most state laws, and no MSD available today is equipped to reduce the excessive nitrogen even “treated” waste can release into the water. Too much nitrogen can stimulate excessive algae growth and reduce dissolved oxygen in the water, shortening the lifespan of most marine wildlife.

Recent years have seen an influx of MSD system options for boats, from port-o-potties to holding tanks to chemical re-circulating toilets. However, there is still only one type of toilet that completely eliminates hazardous waste, completely eliminates the need for waste discharge (or pump out stations), and completely eliminates water pollution altogether– a system fairly new to the nautical field, though tried and true over decades of use on land: the composting toilet.

When we think of composting toilets, we don’t tend to think of the open blue ocean, but that may be changing. With the onset of new regulations, and advancing toilet technology, more and more boaters are turning their vessels greener by going back to the land, or compost, that is. Instead of dealing with MSD installation, messy pump out stations, or the weight of chemical contaminants hanging on their otherwise eco-friendly conscience, an increasing number of boaters are installing onboard composting toilets.

Nautical composting toilets work the same way land-lubber composting toilets do, and most are simply regular composting toilets adapted to the smaller space and limited ventilation of boats. By definition, a composting toilet is “any toilet which treats human waste by composting and dehydration to produce a usable end product.” Most use little or no water, consist of a two or three chamber system (one for composting, one for sanitizing, and one for evaporation), and can compost anything organic– food scraps, egg shells, paper, cardboard, cotton diapers, or tampons.

To solve the problem of limited space and ventilation onboard, many composting toilets are being sold with adaptive exhaust systems, fans, and carbon filters. The use of enzymes and composting boosters (like ozone generators) can also reduce any unpleasant odors. An average compost cycle takes around two weeks, but the resulting end product is a 100% recycled, and completely safe to touch, dump, store, or add to the garden.

Of course, with the average storage capacity of composting toilets, it may be a while before you get your soil additive. Because the waste loses volume as it composts, some toilets have operating capacities over 80 uses (based on two people using twice daily), meaning the average recreational boater may have the luxury of waiting several months before ever needing to empty the loo.

Companies like Envirolet, Sun-Mar, and AirHead (for smaller vessels), who have previously specialized in regular composting toilets, are now offering nautical versions. Like their earth-bound counterparts, nautical composting toilets come with a bit of a price tag. But they pay for themselves in the long run by removing the hassle of installing a similarly costly Marine Sanitation Device, worry about whether or not your chemicals adhere to international standards of “non-pollutants”, and the need to locate and deal with messy pumpout stations. In addition, you achieve the peace of mind that comes with conserving the health of the earth.

On land, the compost toilet is hardly a novelty to places that have no sewage hookup, and now that experience and wisdom has come to bear on the water, for the benefit of all floating vessels. So the next sailing or boating journey you set out on, remember, when nature calls, answer it responsibly and respectfully– use a composting toilet.

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