07/03/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Clean Marinas

We are a boat-loving nation and for good reason: There's a lot to like about leisurely making your way across a body of water, whether by thrum of a motor or the snap of a sail -- why do you think they refer to them as pleasure craft? With some 73 million boats registered in America, the boating industry has also been good for business, particularly in coastal states: In South Carolina alone the industry brings in more than $826 million in sales a year and is responsible for some 9,000 jobs.

But the pleasure of boating comes with unacceptable amounts of environmental waste, from the discarded shrink-wrap that is used to protect boats in winter months, to inefficient fuel docks that can leak into waterways.

Don't look to the federal government to clamp down on this waste, at least thus far. When President Bush signed the Clean Boating Act of 2008 into law last year, the legislation exempted "certain discharges incidental to the normal operation of a recreational vessel."

The National Marine Manufacturers Association, the leading association representing the boating industry whose member companies are responsible for 80 percent of the boats in America, also applauded passage of the bill because of the exemptions it provides for "non-polluting incidental discharges" that result from the operation of your average recreational boat.

That's hard to swallow once you understand how much waste one single boat can generate. Take that shrink-wrap. An average boat uses as much as 14 pounds of the stuff and we're not talking Saran Wrap. Known as low-density polyethylene, or LDPE, the material is a petroleum-based, non-biodegradable material almost an inch thick that can clog-up landfills for years. As one municipal waste management engineer told me "This plastic is just horrible to have out there; it takes a long time to breakdown."

Local governments seem to understand the importance of eco-friendly practices when it comes to the boating industry, perhaps because it is ultimately their job to get rid of the stuff. Many are beginning to put environmental practices in place at municipal marinas. In New Jersey, for example, more than 125 tons of plastic was collected last year from nine participating counties that received grants from The New Jersey Department of Transportation's Office of Maritime Resources. The grants, totaling $100,000, were sourced from boater registration fees.

In New York's Westchester County, county officials have also begun a recycling program to collect and recycle plastic shrink-wrap at many of the area's public marinas.

The recycling program, a partnership between the county and local municipalities, was begun last year as pilot program and resulted in the collection of 21 tons of discarded plastic boat wrap. That's plastic that would have taken up large dwindling space in the area's landfills or -- in some careless cases -- simply tossed into the waterways. This year, that program is expected to capture 30 tons of plastic, all of it trucked to a recycling facility where the material is sold for profit and provides a revenue source for local government.

It's not just local government entities concerned with doing the right thing. On Long Island, boat wrap recycling programs were initiated this year by private waste disposal companies including one operation in Oceanside that is projecting collection of at least 100 tons of plastic for this year alone.

The greening of America's boating industry is particularly important for marinas in places like New York because the state is trying to obtain a so-called "clean marina" status. That's the status given to marinas when they are recognized by state agencies as good stewards of the environment.

Earlier this year, the federal Environmental Protection Agency allotted a $175,000 grant matched by state EPA funds to pursue a clean marina program in New York. That's the type of incentive that can help spur environmental action at America's marinas, some of whom have already taken important steps. In addition to recycling plastic wrap, the New Rochelle Municipal Marina has installed a fuel docks that prevents waste from entering waterways. There's also a storm water treatment plant that capture particles from boats as they are being cleaned so debris doesn't end up in the water.

The harbormaster there described those and other steps as essential for the boat industry. But the implications of environmentally sound practices go beyond boat owners to anyone concerned with the unacceptable fouling of our waterways, something the boating industry and marinas across the country may want to consider.