That Time of Year

It’s going to be a white Christmas here in Gloucester, and I don’t mean snow. I mean the white plastic shrink-wrap used to winterize pleasure boats these days. Until recently, boats used to be covered in cloth canvas or reusable blue vinyl canvas. Boaters threw them over their Grady-Whites and their Rhodes-19s after they were pulled from the water in the fall, to protect the decks and cabins from the elements though the winter.  Rope was fed through grommets along the edges and pulled tight. Empty milk or Clorox bottles were filled with sand or water and used as weights. Now it’s a white disposable sheath that comes off a roll, and someone, either the owner or a boat yard worker, uses a heat gun to fit the plastic to the boat, releasing fumes and hot plastic scraps that blow off with the breeze.


The shrink-wrapping of the boating industry


Is shrink-wrapping that much better than a tarp that it’s worth creating tons of non-biodegradable polyethylene (LDPE) every year, which takes work and energy to recycle, if it is recycled at all?  I doesn’t seem so. It’s not cheaper. Over the life of the boat, it seems considerably more expensive than a reusable cover. It doesn’t ventilate as well as a tarp either, if at all. It looks like a mold and mildew incubator. Not only that, shrink wrap keeps the boater out of the boat for the winter. If you break the seal to do maintenance, or leave your cell phone inside, or just want to say hello to your darling, you have to create a heat-sealed patch to close it up again. To access a tarp-covered boat, you remove a milk jug and slip on under the canvas. As for durability,when the wind blows, as it will, small branches become air-borne missiles and make puncture wounds on the wrap.  So much for water-tight, but at least now it’s ventilated.


A maze of single-use plastic.


That’s its winter life. What happens in the spring?  The average pleasure boat is smothered in 14 pounds of shrink wrap, and there are tens of thousands of vessels along sea coasts, rivers and lakes across the country that get zip-locked for the winter. Where does all this non-biodegradable and environmentally toxic waste go? Some boatyards offer shrink-wrap recycling on site, for a price. Some shrink-wrap vendors sell bags to mail the used wrap back to them, for a price. In my town, Gloucester, the company that contracts our garbage pick-up and recycling will accept the wrap at their facility, for a price. Then it gets trucked to a plant to be processed into plastic lumber or some other material, all of which consumes energy.  What is the price of that?


A White Christmas

And what if it’s just a whole lot easier and cheaper to find a dumpster or a secluded bit of woods or ocean for all that plastic? What happens then? The plastic is non-biodegrable, it doesn’t disappear, but it does go through changes over time, in a landfill or the sea. Sunlight, water, and mold act on the material to break it up into smaller and smaller bits. As it breaks down it releases chemicals, some of which mimic human hormones, like pseudo-estogens, and these seep into the water table. A fish was caught recently in the Potomac River with eggs inside its testicles. What is the price of that?


The Ghost of Christmas Future


Americans like their things nice and tidy. I suppose that’s the appeal of shrink-wrap. And it’s new. We like new. The transformation from tarp to wrap seemed to happen quickly and all at once, so it was either one hell of a sales pitch or everyone was trying to keep up with the Jones, or both. Unlike all the plastic boat wrap that’s already been absorbed into the environment, maybe this is a fad that will someday go away.



6 Replies to “That Time of Year”

  1. Great post on a growing problem. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. Odd that at a time when we’re understanding the problems associated with plastics, more and more LDPE is being manufactured. Hopefully posts like yours will help steer us toward more earth-friendly solutions.

  2. Yes, you’d think that shrink-wrapping would be fazing out instead of gearing up. It’s depressing to look at the Alps of white plastic all winter.

  3. Thanks for bringing this topic up, and for writing about plastics in the ocean with such lyricism. We have just sailed our 24-foot boat from Port Townsend, Washington to New Zealand, and have made a few observations along the way on marine pollution, which tends to concentrate in some areas due to winds, waves and currents. We are happy to report that there are still large areas free of visible pollution, for what it’s worth, and also places with astonishingly robust ecosystems that can inspire people to believe that the world is still a wonderful place and worth fighting for. It is the small, specific and incremental steps like addressing plastic boat covers that have the most chance of success in a world paralyzed by politics and fear.
    Best wishes,
    Karen Sullivan