Saturday, January 19, 2013

What about the waste?

A No Crowds traveller discovered lots of trash washing up on the beautiful beaches of Belize and wanted to know how it got there. In this post, Penny outlines the problem of cruise ship waste and proposes measures each of us can take to solve it. Please share this post with any one who loves to travel and cares about the environment. Thanks.

That’s a melodious blackbird, tuneful behind me in the mango tree.  I leave my front door and squeak down the sand to the waterline.  On the horizon, waves break on the barrier reef.  The frigates are circling a palapas on the dock, and will be disappointed that the disembarking entourage is composed of scuba enthusiasts rather than fishermen. Closer, a blue heron nudges the minnows in the sea grass.

This is paradise.  It’s an island where (if you do not want to travel by water, and depending on how fast you can ride a bike) your fastest mode of transportation is likely to be a golf cart, bobbing along the sandy single lane in back of the houses that line the shore.

Dislodged sea grass comes in every morning.  And bottle caps, pieces of plastic forks, carefully cut portions of opaque milk bottles, shreds of cellophane, a lonely ravaged flip flop.   The seagrass will melt back into the Caribbean, or it can be raked and spread on fields.  But what to do with the other items, the bottlecaps and brittle food containers?    They say it will take somewhere between 450 and 600 years for them to dissolve, though dissolve they shall, changing the chemical composition of the seas.

And to here, to paradise, the items find their way,  refuse from those floating first world metropolises, the cruise ships.

The UN and others have tried to stop the dumping.  There is a Marine Pollution protocol in place, the so-called “MARPOL”, under which the Caribbean in deemed a “Special Area” because of its fragile reefs and enclosed nature.  However, enforcement of MARPOL is through the countries under which the liner is flagged, and the flag countries tend to be far away and disinterested in enforcing UN protocols. Even flag states that sign the protocol do not have to sign up to all if its annexes, such as Annex V, the one that forbids discharge of plastics.

Efforts by poor Caribbean states force cruise lines to internalise the cost of their waste production have not met with success.  A single ship will arrive with more trash than the people of a developing country could afford to generate in months.  But when Grenada suggested a US$1.50 a head tax to defray the cost of waste disposal, Carnival Cruise Line simply stopped going there, depriving it of tourist and trinket revenue altogether.

As we get older, many of us may decide that if we want to see more of the world, it will have to be from the hassle-free deck of a cruise ship.  No packing and carting of luggage.  You know where your next meal will come from (although perhaps not where it goes).  We’re maybe not as interested in local nightlife as we once were.  Could happen – they say people don’t believe how much they will change in a decade ahead, even when they know how much they changed in the decade behind.

But if any of us no-crowdsers decide to take to the seas in this way, let’s ask what is happening to those orange juice bottles, that cellophane, the six pack ring tops, the brittle see-through food trays, not to mention all of our organic “products”.  I think it’s time that the patrons of the cruise ships insist that they are people who pick up after themselves.  That they will not toss their trash overboard where it chafes the coral and ends in the stomachs of sea turtles.  Time for those who pay that piper to start calling the tune.

If ever you book a cruise, if you have friends who travel this way, let’s all start asking, “What about the waste?  What are you doing with our trash?”  And let’s make sure we get honest answers.

Photo: Ambergris Caye, Belize
December 2112

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