Garbage in, garbage out is one of life’s inescapable truths that pertain to almost any activity that humans engage in. As the proverb goes, if you provide wrong data or bad instructions to people or computers, it will produce bad results. 

In this particular case, however, the garbage is literal. Humans have slowly and painfully learned that when the waste products that we generate are thoughtlessly discarded into the sea, they’re almost guaranteed to come back and haunt us. And when they do come back, it brings a host of negative and costly effects. That’s why the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), Annex V garbage regulations are being tightened again. In short, you can’t do much dumping anymore.

At one time, because it fit nicely into our shortsighted economic plans, we declared that “the solution to pollution is dilution,” and recklessly let it fly into, over and under the air, land and sea. We should have known better. Given the fact that this planet is a closed system, you can only ride that faulty logic so far before reality intervenes. Hence the enormous and now permanent “garbage patches,” composed mostly of plastics, that have been discovered in the world’s oceans. 

It turns out that the dilution thing wasn’t such a great idea.

This brings me to the main point of this month’s column: I view the gradual, long-term tightening of the MARPOL regulations as a positive and necessary development, and the planet’s oceans will be better for it. But no matter how you slice it, it still amounts to closing the barn door after the horses have escaped. To put it another way, waste that you don’t create in the first place has no disposal cost and causes no environmental damage. 

Conservation with a capital “C” is the low-hanging fruit here. It’s like free money, if you’re wise enough to grab it.

Check out the Coast Guard’s policy letter that provides interim guidance on the MARPOL revision.