San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Maritime trash: Is Costa Rica really doing its part?


We are known for being a green, eco-friendly country, but I look around today and see garbage everywhere – in the streets, rivers, lakes and streams. I question what is being done about the trash being dumped into the waterways of Costa Rica – trash that eventually ends up in the oceans.

In October 1983, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, known as the MARPOL Convention, entered into force, with 152 countries on board, including Costa Rica. MARPOL, adopted at the International Maritime Organization (IMO), is the main international convention covering prevention of pollution of the marine environment by ships from operational or accidental causes. It responds to the need to control the dumping of garbage into the world’s oceans and waterways. This includes maritime zones such as beaches and estuaries.

My question is: What is Costa Rica doing to enforce MARPOL Annex 5, which includes a complete ban on the disposal into the sea of all forms of plastics?

I recently ran into a problem with a boat anchored in Playas del Coco, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste. The boat’s captain was suspected of dumping scrap material – or dunnage as it is know by the IMO – and was reported to the Costa Rican Coast Guard. Unfortunately, nothing was done.

Pollution prevention begins not just with children in schools, but also by educating Costa Rica’s fishermen and boaters. Garbage at sea affects not just marine mammals and fish, but also our coral reefs, which are much more delicate than one might imagine. Without the coral reefs young fish have nowhere to mature before heading out to open, deep-water ocean formations.

With the increasing use of plastic, human influence has become a threat to the oceans, as many types of plastics do not biodegrade. Waterborne plastic poses a serious threat to fish, seabirds, marine reptiles and marine mammals, as well as to boats and coasts. Dumping, container spillage, litter washed into storm drains and waterways and wind-blown landfill waste all contribute to this problem.

MARPOL’s Annex 5 originally allowed for the dumping of most garbage at sea with the exception of plastics, providing ships were a specified distance from shore. Last January, a new Annex 5 went into effect, practically prohibiting the discharge of all garbage and waste at sea.

The discharge of garbage into the sea is not limited to boats and ships. I often witness people who come to the beach and camp for the weekend or during big holidays, and leave their garbage sitting in the maritime zone, which is more or less the same as dumping it into a river or the ocean. As the ocean rises and falls, and rivers flood, trash makes it way to sea, damaging reefs and injuring and killing marine wildlife.

I was a former merchant marine officer on very large container ships and traveled across the world. It was my duty to educate crews on what could be discharged and what had to be held until the next port, where it could be discharged. What can we do to educate a country that is so eco-friendly to make people realize that if we don’t take care of what we have, it won’t be there for our children?

As can be seen from MARPOL’s new Annex 5, not much of anything can be discharged into maritime zones and oceans. Previously only ships 12 meters or more in length were obliged to display placards advising crew and passengers of the MARPOL Annex 5 garbage disposal requirements. This has now been extended to include fixed and floating platforms (including marinas and piers). All required placards must be up-to-date and state the relevant prohibition and restrictions for discharging garbage from ships and platforms under the revised MARPOL Annex 5.

Every ship of 100 gross tons and above, and every ship certified to carry 15 persons or more, and fixed or floating platforms must have a garbage management plan.

Additionally, every ship of 400 gross tons and above, and every ship certified to carry 15 persons or more engaged in voyages to ports or offshore terminals under the jurisdiction of another party to MARPOL, and every fixed or floating platform shall carry a Garbage Record Book.

The competent government authority of a party to the convention may inspect the Garbage Record Book on board any ship while the ship is in ports or offshore terminals; they may make copies of any entry in that book, and require the master of the ship to certify that the copy is a true copy of such an entry. Officials also may impose penalties for infractions.

I am not clear on what the laws in Costa Rica are for littering the beaches, but now would be a good time to start posting them at major points of tourism and start enforcing them. It is our duty to keep the beaches and waterways of Costa Rica clean, but it is not our duty to pick up after the people who are dumping the trash. I wish someone would explain to me why I need to carry garbage bags with me each time I go to the beach or visit a river for a swim so that I can spend my time picking up after someone else instead of relaxing like the people who left their garbage behind.

Michael Patterson is a retired merchant mariner with several years of experience at sea, both professionally and leisurely.

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