Want a bug-free boat? Manage your trash so they don't see your boat as an all-you-can-eat buffet!

Manage Your Trash to Avoid Bugs

Trash management is one of the biggest keys to having a boat that’s free of bugs (and mice).  Flies, fruit flies, ants, cockroaches, waterbugs, silverfish and more, I’m sure, may see your trash as an “All You Can Eat” buffet. (NOTE: Bug-free doesn’t mean you won’t have mosquitoes or bees and so on, or even the occasional “yucky” bug.  I use the phrase to mean that you don’t have any infestations.)

The good news is that it’s not too hard to close down that restaurant — and it’s a lot easier to do that than to deal with an infestation once it gets started.

The first step in denying bugs a feast on your trash is simply to have as little trash on board as possible.  This begins with your choices at the store — buy things with minimal packaging or with packaging that can be partially discarded before bringing items aboard (read more here).

Most boats have both trash cans/wastebaskets out for everyday use, and larger trash bags stored somewhere out of the way.  A few care and managements tips for the trash cans and bags:

  • Using lidded trash cans (the tighter fitting the lid, the better) will help keep bugs at bay.
  • Line the trash cans with bags (re-use plastic grocery bags if you have some).
  • Natural repellants:  Spray the inside of the bags (and the larger “storage” bags) with a squirt of vinegar, and add a sprinkle of ground cloves (or a whole clove or drop of clove oil) and a bay leaf before putting trash in it. Vinegar does a good job of repelling flies, cloves are great against ants and many bugs dislike bay. If you’re in an area with a known cockroach problem, you may want to make some little balls from boric acid and powdered milk and pop one in each fresh trash bag (these are also good against ants).
  • If the natural repellants just aren’t cutting it, spray the inside of the bag with Raid or a similar bug-killer.  I prefer the less-toxic natural products, but if we’re starting to see more bugs around, I’ll bring out the nasty spray to stop a problem before it gets to be an infestation and we have to call in an exterminator.
  • Treat places where you store recyclable materials in the same way.
  • When you empty the small trash cans into the big one, be sure to wipe out the inside if there is even a bit of dirt. If anything liquid is in it or has dried, wash it out well — you can use salt water or lake water — and let it dry before using again.

Keep food out of the trash cans and bags:

  • Keep separate sealed containers for garbage (food scraps).  Read more here.
  • Rinse meat wrappers and put in old Ziplocs (read more).
  • Rinse cans and boxes that contained food thoroughly before putting in the trash (flatten them too, to save space).  You can use salt water or lake water depending on where you are — you don’t have to use “drinking” water.
  • Put caps back on bottles where possible, corks in wine bottles, etc.
  • Watch out for things like candy wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, cereal bags and so on.  If you’re seeing more bugs around, put them in a sealed container such as as used Ziploc or a jar that’s already in the trash, or hit them with a shot of bug spray.
  • Be sure to rinse anything that you’re saving for recycling, too.  Even drink cans that don’t contain sugar should be rinsed, as the smell can attract bugs.
Take advantage of chances to dispose of trash . . . responsibly:

  • If trash isn’t on board, it can’t feed bugs.
  • The only “food scraps” that should be thrown into the water are things that came from the water: the fish carcass after filleting it, clam, lobster, shrimp and scallop shells, and so on.
  • Recycle what you can and learn the local system for doing so. For example, where we cruised in Mexico, there weren’t formal recycling bins. But almost every town had someone who made their living by picking through trash bins for recyclable items (particularly aluminum pop and beer cans) and selling them somewhere.  We learned to separately bag our cans and leave them next to a trash bin.
  • Don’t throw trash — even food scraps (except for seafood scraps) — in the water.
  • Never burn plastic or anything that contains plastic.  Watch for hidden plastic, such as in Tetra Paks, where it’s sandwiched between layers of cardboard and foil.

Being fanatical about no exposed food won’t just keep bugs off the boat — you’ll also have fewer funky smells!

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  • Dave Skolnick (S/V Auspicious)
    Posted at 28 March 2014 Reply

    We have trash cans in the salon, head, aft cabin, and galley. Food waste only goes in the galley trash, and even there only inshore. Offshore we keep a garbage bowl for food waste and dump it over the side after each meal. Not sure why you think sea life doesn’t eat food Carolyn. Offshore everything but plastic goes over the side. Inshore we take trash ashore every single trip. Not even food goes over the side inshore – it isn’t legal in the US or in many other countries.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 28 March 2014 Reply

      Hi Dave! I’ve just seen a lot of food scraps floating and washed up on too many beaches to toss it any more. We used to . . .

      • Chris
        Posted at 18 February 2016 Reply

        We have a vitamix blender which we use as a garbage disposal. Each days food scraps (peelings, eggshell, rinds ) go in and get turned into organic sluge. That gets dumped over in deep water, never at anchorages. Don’t like to see orange and banana peels on beaches .

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