By Carolyn Shearlock © 2012 • all rights reserved

Boats don't have garbage disposers! So how do you deal with garbage? A few suggestions for dealing with food scraps.

It’s not pretty.  It’s not part of the dream.  It’s garbage — and by “garbage,” I mean food scraps, not just general trash.

So what do you do with garbage on a boat?  In this article, I’m talking about short trips, charters and coastal cruising.  Ocean passages, where you may be at sea or a month or more, will require some different techniques.

You’ve probably already noticed the two main problems with garbage:  it stinks, and it attracts bugs (and worse).  In a warm climate, both happen very quickly.

Luckily, putting your garbage in an airtight container solves both problems.  I usually have a wide-mouth jar that’s trash itself and I just put the garbage in it and keep the lid on tight. Peanut butter, mayonnaise and jelly jars are all great candidates.  You can also use margarine and yogurt tubs, but the lids can be a little more prone to pop off.

If I don’t have a suitable jar or tub, I use an old Ziploc bag or perhaps an old bread wrapper.  The big thing is to make sure it doesn’t have any holes in it and that you can seal it up tightly.  Sometimes with a Ziploc, “crud” will get into the zipper ridges and prevent the bag from staying sealed.

If the container isn’t airtight or comes open, the smell will probably be your first clue.  Swarming bugs around it are another sure sign.  Take care of the problem immediately — no matter how bad it smells — as it emphatically will not get better by itself.  You do not want a stinky garbage mess to suddenly turn into a stinky garbage mess with a bug infestation.  If you’ve had a problem, it can help to give a squirt of bug spray in the trash can after you’ve cleaned up any spill.

We always disposed of the “garbage jars” with the rest of our trash when we got to a town or anchorage with some sort of trash service.

Some people suggest throwing garbage overboard on the grounds the sea life will eat it or that it’s biodegradable.  I don’t like to do that.

All you have to do is walk the beach anywhere that garbage is thrown in the water to see the result.  Okay, you don’t see as much food as plastic, but a lot of that garbage does end up on shore or on the ocean bottom just offshore.  Fruit peels, especially oranges, are usually prevalent.  I remember snorkeling beautiful reefs in the BVI and finding banana peels.  YUCK!

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  1. I really like your site.It’s what we’ve always needed.Practicle advice from those with the experience

  2. If you have a solid-fuel stove or heater (and are in a place or going to a place where it’s likely to be used) much of your boat garbage can be turned into bio-briquettes and burned.

  3. Wow, what a great site! And giving this info for FREE!
    As for what to do with garbage: re-use those fruit and veggie bags from the grocery and put the produce type garbage in there. Then put it in the freezer in a container till “trash day”. No bugs.
    If you also use a juicer that emulsifies peelings (where most of the nutrients are anyway) you can reduce the size of the garbage and eat more healthfully.
    What if you just put all that in a blender on frappé, could that be toss overboard without creating a problem?

    • Well, let’s see . . . Thanks for liking the site!

      Many boats don’t have a large freezer — or even a freezer at all. So they may not be able to put garbage into the freezer. I’m guessing that most boats just don’t have this option, but thanks for suggesting it for those who do. And they don’t have the space for a blender/food processor, nor want to use the electricity for garbage. And little bits of food garbage are just as ugly as big ones, and really, the fish don’t eat it. So I doubt that this would work well for many boaters.

  4. A five-pound size flour canister, lined with two produce bags, provides a nifty place for smelly food garbage and plate scrapings. Bugs stay out; smells stay in. I recently replaced my flour container with a container meant to store and pour cereal. Many bits of garbage can be poked through the sealable pouring spout obviating the need to remove the whole top for every access event. This is a bonus in the odor department.

  5. We use contractor strength trash bags stored in the dingy (on Davits ). That way when we go ashore, we dispose of garbage properly

  6. Handling garbage on an extended cruise is a nuisance. One summer we were out for 3 1/2 months and only tied to a dock twice. We had large, square pails that we got from a restaurant and divided them into tin, glass and waste. We flattened the tins with a hammer to save space and burnt the garbage or disposed of it when at a dock. We had removed excessive packaging before we left on the cruise so we weren’t carrying too much to begin with.

    The people we bought our boat from went on a two-year cruise and canned most of their provisions for the trip so had very little waste. As you can imagine, this took them a lot of time to prepare, but it is an environmentally friendly thing to do.

  7. This is a challenge.

    To your introductory point, well offshore there are few options beyond tossing everything other than plastic over the side in accordance with MARPOL regulations. Even this is becoming a problem as more and more containers are plastic. The key to plastic offshore is scrubbing them before doing the best you can to nest them and stow for disposal ashore.

    Inshore it pays to do some research. On many islands “proper disposal” ends up back in the sea. In those situations, getting together with other cruisers to burn garbage on the beach may be the most responsible course of action. Pollute the air or pollute the sea? Sometimes there are no good answers, only least bad ones.

    The best we can do is minimize the amount we have to dispose, pay attention to our waste stream, and try to keep the bugs away. One key for us has been separating as much container volume as we can when we make a provisioning run.

    We wash all cans and bottles in sea water before putting them in the trash. A sea water pump at the galley sink helps a lot. We do separate food stuff from containers and similar garbage.

    +1 on stowing trash in the dink while inshore so we don’t forget to take it ashore, again assuming that local disposal is responsible.

    • Good points, Dave. I’ve written a number of articles here on the many facets of Trash Management, including thinking about it when buying goods, ways to store it aboard and even what to do if burning it seems the best option. It’s a real problem, not just on a boat but ashore, too. Even where there are landfills as opposed to just “dumping grounds,” much ends up in the landfill that could be recycled or composted. For example, where I live there is no glass recycling despite the fact that glass is one of the easiest things to recycle.

  8. When we crossed the Atlantic we saved up a few water bottles bought in the Med. Each day any rubbish that couldn’t be thrown overboard (we only threw over food waste) was thoroughly washed, squashed or cut and squeezed into the bottle. At the end of our 14 day trip we had only filled one five litre water bottle. Keeping the bottle sealed kept any smells (minimal due to washing) at bay.

  9. We are new to living on a sail boat and really appreciat your site! We had a sail boat here in Arizona which only went out on the local lakes. Recently we purchased a boat that is moored in Morro Bay Ca and we have started staying there on extended weekends. I have gotten so many great pointers on practical living on the boat from your site. Today it was garbage containment! Thank you!!!

  10. We cruised the inside passage in the Pacific NW. Cooler weather was definitely our friend when it came to smells but there are so many bugs and they are not shy about visiting the dark or even the light corners.
    I was militant about the separation of garbage in case we had to dump it while out. My husband suggested chopping it really fine. Yuk! Most marinas took any trash/garbage. Some sold you a special bag and would take it only in that bag, while others just charged a dump fee. Friday Harbor had an array of cans for various recycling. But most Canadian stops did not recycle.

    • Becky Croston says:

      Thanks Cindy! –I’ve waited for hints for “this ” area (Pac. N.W.) We’re going up to Alaska for five months and I’m hungry for help!

  11. I love your site! Always learning new things!! We are about 7 months away from living aboard at a marina and want to learn to live as if cruising, because we will throw off the dock lines about 4 to 5 years later. I;ve never done any canning or anything like that and have lived mostly with processed food. Someone mentioned that they knew someone who canned everything before a long passage. Is that possible? Could you can things like chili with ground beef in it, and if so how long will it last? What else could you can?

    • Hi Cookie,

      Best wishes to you. Some thoughts for you: plenty of things will change when you move aboard. Don’t try to change your cooking and eating habits right off the bat. Give yourself a year to get used to your new environment before you change things that can stay the same for a while.

      With respect to canning it does work and it isn’t hard. Canned foods last almost indefinitely, at least for cruising purposes. You can certainly can chili with ground beef. I can’t think of anything you can find in a can on the shelf in the grocery that you can’t do yourself.

      In my experience the things I can find commercially in cans tend to be a better value as long as they taste good to us. We can homemade pasta sauce, our family chili, and some stews and other dishes we really like. We also make pickles and some other odds and ends that we like when we are away from big shopping.

      A couple of articles are recommend are Beth Leonard’s piece on canning: and the USDA guidelines on home canning:

      I carry a 5 l Kuhn Rikon pressure cooker (which was a ‘moving aboard’ change for me) we cook in – including non-pressure dishes like pasta – and a 16 qt pressure canner we also use for crab boils and other “big pot” needs aboard.

      sail fast and eat well, dave
      S/V Auspicious

      • Becky Croston says:

        I would recommend a class on canning too — our County Extension office has classes and advice. Faulty canning can make you ill –or worse!

  12. I would’ve though organics could go overboard.

    • Many don’t really get eaten. They just float on the surface and it’s pretty yucky for people nearby and really ugly on the beaches. I’ve been snorkeling and come across garbage either floating or littering the bottom and it’s not pretty!

    • I don’t imagine it is, I try to pick up whatever I come across, it drives my bf crazy 😉 thanks for the lesson, I’ll keep this info in mind for next season.

  13. for those with large enough freezers, store the zip lock garbage bags in the freezer until you’re able to dispose of them.

  14. W. Gardner says:

    This may be a rookie question, but could food scraps go in the composting toilet?

    • The “No Stink” part of the composting toilet is because of the strict separation of liquids and solids. I’m afraid that putting many food scraps would make the “dry” area too wet and thus it would smart smelling. It would also fill up the solids area much faster.

  15. Would it work to vacuum pack the smelly goodies? We plan to keep a FoodSaver on board, and if we sort our trash, it seems like a workable idea. Please chip in.

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