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March 2006

What about holding tanks
Here is an excerpt from the new revised edition of Care and Feeding of Sailing Crew in response to questions we've received about holding tanks.

Handling of human waste (black water) is becoming an ever-increasing concern for voyagers. All ports in the United States, all of the Great Lakes, several enclosed lakes and bays in Canada, and many ports in Europe have been designated "no discharge" areas. In New Zealand, the rule is no discharge of black water within 500 meters of shore. Several New Zealand marinas now have staff put seals on toilet-discharge valves upon arrival.

Holding tanks are standard on most American cruising boats and many European ones, and they offer a solution in areas where there are pump-out stations. In Canadian waters, where it is legal to discharge human waste once you are beyond the "no discharge" areas, there are very few pump-out stations. Outside the Great Lakes, only a few large marinas in main centers have pump-out facilities. Pump-out stations are rare or nonexistent in most other parts of the world. Furthermore, the vast majority of human waste going into coastal waters and inland rivers does not come from boats with installed toilets, but rather from fishermen and people in small open boats, as well as kayakers and day sailors with no toilet facilities at all. (More than 99 percent of the boats registered in the United States are less than 18 feet in length and powered by outboard motors.) Most of these folks use some variation of the "bucket-and-chuck-it" system. (Even in the United States, where black-water-management laws are the most stringent, you are only required to have holding tanks if you have an installed marine head with through-hull discharge.)
Bucket-and-chuck-it may be okay in open areas, but we find it a discomforting choice in pristine anchorages or in enclosed marinas anywhere in the world. We have no installed head due to our dislike of holding tanks, so we have made an enclosure with seat and lid for a bucket and have come up with solutions that we feel work well. Offshore, we use the bucket-and-chuck-it system. Near shore or in enclosed anchorages, we use Wag Bags in the bucket. These fully biodegradable bags-familiar to dog and cat owners-contain special powder (called Pooh-Powder) that turns urine into a gel and deodorizes the waste. The special enzymes in the gel also kill bacteria and promote the breakdown of waste and bags. After using the bag (one bag can be used five or six times), we simply seal it into the separate biodegradable pouch supplied with each kit. Then it can be deposited in the trash for disposal at landfills. In Peru, where these bags are required for anyone hiking the Inca Trail, the waste product is allowed to break down in compost heaps; within four months, the compost can be used safely for gardening. They also are used for emergency waste management, such as during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when more than a million of the bags were used in the area around New Orleans. In the absence of these bags, many small boat racers use a bucket with a fitted lid and plastic-bag liners. The bags and simple bucket with toilet seats are available through West Marine and most camping outlets. A folding toilet plus Wag Bags can be purchased directly from the manufacturer, Phillips Environmental Products (tel. 1-877-520-0999, www.thepett.com).

Though the chemicals used to control odors in holding tanks are, by law, biodegradable, I learned from conversations with government marine biologists in the Gulf islands that there is growing concern that these chemicals, when dumped offshore, may do more harm to marine organisms than untreated waste.

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