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How tankers are working to minimise plastics at sea

Waste disposal on tankers is a carefully considered operation, with more companies moving to plastic-free fleets, but waste disposal onshore isn’t meeting these standards.

Thirty years ago, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) introduced a total prohibition on the disposal of plastics into the seas through its MARPOL Convention. Today, the careful segregation and storage of plastics on a modern tanker is an essential part of health and safety on board, with operators now focusing on eliminating plastics brought on board in the first place.

Many tanker owners are moving towards a plastic-free environment on board their fleets. Replacing disposable plastics with glass or ceramics can increase the need for washing but phosphate-free detergents and soaps help alleviate any knock-on environmental effects. A recently published, free guide on waste management for tankers addresses the need to record, carefully store and eventually dispose of all waste, going as far as what to do with fibrous filters from cigarette butts.

Now, plastics and rubbish in general are being managed, minimised and eventually eliminated on board, so where are the challenges for the tanker industry today? Kathi Stanzel, INTERTANKO Managing Director and Marine Biologist, points to four key challenges that can’t be managed by the tanker industry alone.

1. Stop packaging with plastic!

The first challenge stems, as it does ashore, from the constant battle with suppliers to provide goods that are not packaged in plastics.

Then there are the ports; tankers are still struggling to find ports and terminals that will accept their rubbish. A member’s tanker has previously had to make nine separate port calls before it found a port that would accept its rubbish.

2. Onshore waste management needs improving

Most major ports do provide facilities and ports in Europe mandate the discharge of all rubbish before a ship leaves port. However, as more new ports open up around the world, the provision of adequate waste reception facilities needs to be higher on the list of developers’ priorities.

3. Waste segregation needed on shore

And when so much effort is made on board to sort rubbish, particularly the various types of plastics, it is hugely disheartening for a ship’s crew to see this carefully segregated waste simply dumped together into a single skip on the dock side. Stanzel comments that while it is good that the waste can be landed, it is disappointing that more often than not, the efforts on board are not reflected ashore.

Working with the IMO will assist in overcoming some of the challenges, but another question is how the tanker industry can collectively assist in the global effort to reduce plastics from land-based sources that have already accumulated in the oceans?

4. Tankers are reporting on the plastic problem at sea

New initiatives are using tanking vessels to act as observation and reporting platforms to assist research on the quantities and locations of plastics in the oceans. Others are involved with projects that use tankers to collect rubbish as they move through the open oceans.

These initiatives and ideas are being shared across the industry so that such projects can gain momentum as additional fleets are introduced to bolster the efforts. This, Stanzel says, is the real strength of working collaboratively.

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