Recycling Aboard the Robert C. Seamans:  Reflections from 2012

We, the students of class S239, temporary residents of the Sailing School Vessel Robert C. Seamans, have been forced to think about issues that are easy to ignore on land. Similar to islanders, we on the Seamans live surrounded by ocean with all of our resources and all of our waste right under our noses. We make our own fresh water, keep track of how much fuel we are using, and manage our garbage every day. On our seven-week voyage from the island of Tahiti in French Polynesia to the island of Oahu in Hawaii, we faced the question of whether or not we were living sustainably. Functioning in this small-scale environment, sustainability was easy to conceptualize but still difficult to achieve. Understanding sustainability on a global scale is still more complicated because resources and waste are so vast. Within Polynesian history and culture the va’a (canoe or ocean vessel) was often evoked as a metaphor for a community. In the same way we can view the SSV Seamans as a model for the earth, the common home of human beings.

Recycling is a possible solution that can guide us, on land and at sea, in the direction of a sustainable environment. However, there are benefits and drawbacks to recycling when it comes to energy use. There are several steps to the recycling process, some of which can be energy intensive. In a 2005 study Anna Bjorklund and Goran Finnveden compared the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of recycling to that of other waste management options.[1] GWP is a measurement based on energy use, which is often a good indicator of other environmental impacts.[2] Their findings suggest that recycling of used materials holds the lowest GWP in most cases, but not all of them. For instance, recycling is not the better option when it involves using recycled plastic to replace wood-derived products instead of making new plastic. Avoiding virgin timber harvest does not save enough to outweigh the costs of recycling and remanufacturing used plastic.[3] This article makes it clear that many factors contribute to the effectiveness of recycling, including types of facilities and materials, and that these are things we must consider when dealing with waste on the Seamans.

In addition to expending energy, the processes of recycling--collection, processing, and manufacturing--can also be very expensive. Susan A. Thorneloe, Keith Weitz and Jenna Jambeck (2007) studied both financial costs and energy consumption for different waste management scenarios.[4] They found that the lowest monetary cost scenario was 20% recycling and 80% landfill use.[5] However, the costs increase when the recycling rate drops to 10% or rises above 30%.[6] In terms of energy consumption, recycling at all rates, even 10%, shows a net energy savings.[7] These energy savings correlate with high rates of waste-to-energy (WTE) recovery as well as high recycling rates.[8] When studying recycling in Southampton, UK, V. Krivstov (2004) found that energy efficiency of recycling increases with recycling rate.[9] He found that if the recycling rate in Southampton were to increase from 25.16% to 100%, then energy savings would increase by 5.4%.[10] Thus, scale is an important consideration when it comes to recycling, and it may be difficult to see the benefits of recycling on a relatively small vessel like the Seamans.

On a ship, particularly one that travels internationally, there are additional factors that complicate the viability of recycling. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is the branch of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that regulates the entry of garbage into the United States to prevent the spread of plant pests and animal diseases.[11] Policy requires that carriers coming into the United States must either incinerate their garbage to ash, sterilize it in 212ºF for thirty minutes, or grind and discharge it into an approved sewage system.[12] Aluminum cans, glass, plastic containers, cardboard, and paper may be recycled without sterilization or incineration only if they remain uncontaminated by food waste.[13] On the Seamans, the majority of waste comes from the galley and has been in contact with food, which means that it must all be sterilized or incinerated. The Seamans does not have an incinerator, but she does have a small dish sanitizing unit. The downside to the onboard sanitizer is that it uses energy and cannot sanitize porous materials like plastic and paper. Therefore, metal and glass are the only possible recyclables that the Seamans can bring into the United States.

The Seamans must also follow existing laws regarding waste at sea. The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) stipulates that plastic can never be dumped into the ocean, but paper, metal and glass can be dumped twelve nautical miles from land.[14] Ground food waste can be dumped three nautical miles from land.[15] On the Seamans, we separate our plastic trash, compress it, and store it until we reach our destination. We dump all of our metal, glass, paper and food waste overboard. It is frustrating that we cannot easily bring plastic into Oahu because plastic waste is what we have the most of. S-233, the previous the Seamans trip, using similar food products to feed a similar crew on a similar cruise track, produced 96 cubic feet of plastic waste and only 20 cubic feet of metal and glass. (see Waste Management and Recycling Aboard the Robert C. Seamans)

Plastic waste is problematic because upon arrival to Oahu, the Department of Agriculture of Hawaii first autoclaves our plastic trash, which is energy intensive, and then puts it into the Waimanalo Gulch Landfill, which is running out of space. The Waimanalo Gulch Landfill is the only municipal landfill in Oahu, and according to Matthew J. Eckelman and Marian R. Chertow (2009), “requires immediate expansion if it is to remain in operation.”[16] Due to the significant impact of tourism and high levels of affluence, Hawaii has the highest per capita municipal waste generation of all U.S. states.[17] Hawaii produces 1.5 tons of waste annually per capita compared to the national average of 0.8-1.2 tons.[18] According to the Waste Management of Hawaii website, Oahu generates 1.6 million tons of waste each year, 400,000 tons of which go to the landfill.[19] The rest of the waste either gets recycled, goes to The Honolulu Program of Waste Energy Recovery (HPOWER), or gets deposited into a private construction and demolition landfill.[20] While WTE can result in energy savings, as Thorneloe, Weitz, and Jambeck express, it also generates 100,000 tons of ash that go to the landfill each year.[21] The City and County of Honolulu, under a contract with Waste Management of Hawaii, only uses 64.5 acres for landfilling.[22] It is difficult to find additional disposal sites because regulations restrict putting landfills over groundwater supplies in the interior of the island, but the exterior of the island has more residents and competing land uses.[23] Therefore, the less waste we can contribute to Oahu’s waste stream the better.

Although we produce less metal and glass waste on the Seamans than plastic waste, this does not necessarily mean that we do not have enough to recycle. Recycling the metal and glass waste of the Seamans is a possibility; in fact, the students of S238 did this, but it is important to consider whether or not they actually saved energy. According to Waste Management, recycling one ton of aluminum saves 14,000 kWh of energy, 1,663 gallons of oil, 237.6 million BTUs of energy, and 10 cubic yards of landfill space.[24] Additionally, recycling aluminum takes 95% less energy than making aluminum from raw materials.[25] Thorneloe, Weitz, and Jambeck also highlight the fact that metal recycling has a high energy savings potential compared to most other recyclables.[26] However, they also note that metals recycling can contribute to smog and acidification due to long transportation distances for metals remanufacturing and emissions during the remanufacturing process.[27]

The Seamans carries some aluminum cans, but most of our food products come in steel cans. Recycling one ton of steel saves 642 kWh of energy, 76 gallons of oil, 10.9 million BTUs of energy, and 4 cubic yards of landfill space.[28] Recycling glass, although a little less efficient than steel and aluminum, also offers significant energy savings. Recycling one ton of glass saves 42 kWh of energy, 5 gallons of oil, 714.286 BTUs of energy, 2 cubic yards of landfill space, and 7.5 pounds of air pollutants from being released.[29] Recycling glass saves 30% of the energy that is required to produce glass from raw materials (soda, ash, sand and limestone), in part because cullet (crushed glass) melts at a lower temperature than the raw materials.[30]

I visited Reynolds Recycling, one of the largest recycling companies in Oahu, to get an idea of what would have happened to our recyclables. The president of the company, Terry Telfer, informed me of the same fact that is on the Waste Management website-- recycling aluminum cans represents a 95% energy savings. Reynolds creates “mill ready materials,” meaning they collect waste and compress it into big bails.[31] Figure 1 shows bails of aluminum, each of which contains 25,000 cans. They ship these bails to Tennessee (by boat to Los Angeles, by rail car to Memphis, and then by tractor to the mill). Within 6 weeks, the cans return to Oahu as sheets of aluminum, which get made into new cans.[32] Despite all of this transportation, Telfer is certain that recycling represents significant energy savings. He says that each can saves about half a cup of gasoline, since making new cans involves mining, converting bauxite to aluminum, transport, and other energy intensive processes.[33]

Figure 1: Aluminum bales Reynolds Recycling, Honolulu. Photo Bethany Reynalds, March 2012.

Oahu transports its mill-ready material because it does not have manufacturing facilities of its own. Oahu’s intermediate sized economy makes it difficult for recycling businesses because it is big enough to demand many products and materials, but it is too small to provide other big economies with secondary materials.[34] There is not much of a market for these secondary materials in Oahu, so having manufacturing facilities is not worthwhile.[35] Oahu exports its recyclables to Asia and the U.S. mainland, and this process adds transportation costs to the energy budget of the recycling process. Reynolds Recycling, for instance, ships its plastic waste to China, where it is used mainly to make carpeting.[36]

The alternative to recycling metal and glass on the Seamans is dumping it overboard, which is what we currently do. In 1996, Martin V. Angel and Tony L. Rice wrote: “As global human populations continue to grow uncontrollably, we may need to use deep ocean environments for disposal of waste material to maintain sustainability of global environmental resources.”[37] They note that putting inert, metal-rich, or organic rich waste onto the ocean floor does not create major harmful impacts on living resources in the ocean. Some actually argue that dumping metal into the ocean is beneficial because it adds iron, which is a limiting nutrient for many species of phytoplankton. The scientist John Martin hypothesized that fertilizing the ocean with iron would cause large blooms of phytoplankton that would absorb carbon dioxide and remove it from the atmosphere.[39] In 1995, Kenneth Coale tested this hypothesis by sprinkling an area of the ocean with iron. Phytoplankton levels increased to thirty times greater than normal, and it drew down over 2,500 tons of carbon.[40] Angel and Rice wrote this article around the same time as the outbreak of the “iron fertilization hypothesis,” and although they did not directly mention these benefits, they did emphasize that the Law of the Sea Convention would not consider deep ocean waste disposal to be large-scale pollution.[41] There has been plenty of scientific criticism to iron fertilization in the past sixteen years, but in terms of policy, not a lot has changed. The MARPOL policy was designed to protect the ocean, but it still allows dumping of non-plastic waste.

There are not only environmental impacts associated with waste management, but also financial, social, and psychological ones. Recycling tends to make people feel good about themselves, even if what they are doing is not necessarily what is best for the environment. On the other hand, people often have a NIMBY (not in my backyard) outlook, and probably would be less likely to recycle if they had to carry their recyclables around with them for an extended period of time. On the Seamans, students often comment that they feel guilty dumping trash into the ocean. However, they are hesitant to say that they would rather carry it with them.

Although the idea of recycling aboard the Robert C. Seamans is appealing, it is an undertaking that is much more difficult than recycling on land. It is a task that involves many considerations, including types of materials, international laws, storage, transportation, facilities, energy use, and much more. People in many types of distant geographical locations, whether on a ship, an island, or even a ranch, will continue to face these problems of waste management and sustainability. The best thing we can do for now is to take responsibility of our waste. If individuals are conscious about what materials they are using and where their waste is going, eventually we can work to make the globe function as one single sustainable va’a.

Laura Karson, Carleton College


[1] Anna Bjorklund and Goran Finnveden, “Recycling Revisted – Life Cycle Comparisons of Global Warming Impact and Total Energy Use of Waste Management Strategies,” Resources, Conservation and Recycling 44 (2005): 311.. Science Direct. 26 January 2012.

[2] Bjorklund and Finnveden, “Recycling Revisited,” 311.

[3] Bjorklund and Finnveden, “Recycling Revisited,” 311.

[4] Susan A. Thorneloe, Keith Weitz, and Jenna Jambeck, “Application of the US Decision Support Tool for Materials and Waste Management,” Waste Management 27 (2007): 1013. Web. 26 January 2012.

[5] Thorneloe, Weitz, and Jambeck, “Application of the US decision support tool,” 1013.

[6] Thorneloe, Weitz, and Jambeck, “Application of the US decision support tool,” 1013.

[7] Thorneloe, Weitz, and Jambeck, “Application of the US decision support tool,” 1013.

[8] Thorneloe, Weitz, and Jambeck, “Application of the US decision support tool,” 1013.

[9] Krivstov, V., et al. “Analysis of Energy Footprints Associated with Recycling of Glass and Plastic – Case Studies for Industrial Ecology.” Ecological Modelling 174 (2004): 179. Web. Elsevier. 26 January 2012.

[10] Krivstov, “Analysis of energy footprints,” 179.

[11] United States Department of Agriculture, The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Manual for Agricultural Clearance (n.d.). Web. 24 March 2012."">.

[12] USDA, APHIS, Manual.

[13] USDA, APHIS, Manual.

[14] International Maritime Organization. International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (2011). Web. 24 March 2012."">.

[15] IMO, International Convention.

[16] Matthew J. Eckelman and Marian R. Chertow, “Using Material Flow Analysis to Illuminate Long-Term Waste Management Solutions in Oahu, Hawaii.” Journal of Industrial Ecology 13.9 (2009): 758. Web. 24 March 2012.

[17] Eckelman and Chertow, “Using Material Flow Analysis,” 758.

[18] Eckelman and Chertow, “Using Material Flow Analysis,” 758.

[19] Waste Management. Keeping Hawaii Clean (2007). Web. 24 March 2012."">.

[20] Waste Management

[21] Waste Management, Keeping Hawaii Clean.

[22] Waste Management, Keeping Hawaii Clean.

[23] Eckelman and Chertow, “Using Material Flow Analysis,” 760.

[24] Waste Management, Keeping Hawaii Clean.

[25] Waste Management, Keeping Hawaii Clean.

[26] Thorneloe, Weitz, and Jambeck, “Application of the US decision support tool,” 1014.

[27] Thorneloe, Weitz, and Jambeck, “Application of the US decision support tool,” 1015.

[28] Waste Management, Keeping Hawaii Clean.

[29] Waste Management, Keeping Hawaii Clean.

[30] Waste Management, Keeping Hawaii Clean.

[31] Terry Telfer, President of Reynolds Recycling, Personal Interview, 22 Mar 2012.

[32] Telfer, Personal Interview.

[33] Telfer, Personal Interview.

[34] Eckelman and Chertow, “Using Material Flow Analysis,” 759.

[35] Eckelman and Chertow, “Using Material Flow Analysis,” 759.

[36] Telfer, Personal Interview.

[37] Martin V. Angel and Tony L. Rice, “The Ecology of the Deep Ocean and Its Relevance to Global Waste Management,” Journal of Applied Ecology, 33.5 (1996): 915. Web. Jstor. 26 January 2012.

[38] Angel and Rice, “Ecology of the Deep Ocean,” 915.

[39] John Weir, John Martin (1935-1993) NASA, Earth Observatory (n.d.). Web. . 26 January, 2012.

[40] NASA, John Martin.

[41] Angel and Rice, “Ecology of the Deep Ocean,” 915.

How to cite this page: Laura Karson. “Recycling Aboard the Robert C. Seamans: Reflections from 2012,” Atlas for Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures and Ecosystems, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA. 2012. Web. [Date accessed]