How to be a greener boater - by Graham Phillips

Environmentally aware canal cruising

Graham Phillips runs TIA Environmentally Responsible Products. They sell environmentally responsible products to the canal and inland waterways community from the narrowboat Tia which cruises the South Midlands area. For more info see

Issues of the environment and climate change are becoming more commonplace in news stories and documentaries in the media, but how can we, as boaters, help to alleviate the burden we are putting on resources and at the same time make boating a more enjoyable, safer, cost effective and rewarding experience? Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is becoming a household mantra and is very relevant to cruising.


Reduce the amount of time you have to run your engine to charge your batteries. If you leave your boat unattended on a mooring for long periods consider investing in a small, flexible "solar panel" or photovoltaic cell as they are known. A wind generator, perhaps like the compact Rutland 503, is also an option, but not convenient for everyone. Both of these pieces of equipment will trickle charge your batteries for free when you are not around. Also, if you have an engine mounted 240v generator, like the Travel Power, fit a battery charger to your system. These options will cut your carbon footprint by reducing the time you have to run your engine and save you money into the bargain as you won't have to buy as much diesel - a big benefit as the price could double in 2008. (See the Canal Junction Electrics Page for suppliers.)
Reduce the amount of miles your food has travelled and the amount of packaging you end up sending to landfill. This can be done easily at source. Check the country of origin to determine how far the item has come.
Don't buy pre-packed produce. Nine times out of ten, selecting your green grocery from the "pick and mix" counter will work out cheaper. Obviously there is a need, in some cases, to pack these goods into bags - but don't use plastic. Paper bags are easier to recycle. Mushrooms are a prime example. But why use bags for things like marrows, apples and onions?
A better way altogether to shop whilst you are out cruising is locally and in season. There are many towns and villages on the canal system with independent retail outlets, village stores and farm shops who would really appreciate your business.
Reduce the amount of heat loss from your boat. Not everybody cruises during the winter, but we like to - the canals are quieter and it is easier to find visitor moorings. But it can be cold. Good insulation installed on your boat will help to reduce heat loss and cut down on carbon emissions - especially if you are using coal or diesel heating. Hang good quality lined curtains on the windows and ensure gaps around doors, where drafts can enter, are sealed - but do not block air vents which are designed to reduce the hazards of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Reduce the number of miles you have to travel to your boat and relocate to a mooring nearer home.


The first reuse must be carrier bags. Plastic bags can take 500 years to fully degrade so think carefully before using them. Also, why not save and reuse those plastic containers you get from takeaway shops - great for storing left over food for a following days' tasty lunch, for elusive screws, nuts and bolts or germinating seed trays for your summer plant pots.
Reuse also brings me to touch on the subject of bio-diesel. All I will say for the time being is that bio-diesel is an excellent way to fuel a boat especially when used cooking oil is the main component. (More later.)


Everybody by now should be familiar with recycling. There are some extremely good recycling points along the canal system but unfortunately at the moment it is patchy. I am aware that there are very frequent recycling points along the Grand Union as far up as Stoke Bruerne and that some boating businesses such as Calcutt Marina provide a service for their moorers and visiting customers. But it is still an alarming fact that most of the waste British Waterways process is sent to landfill.

Boat Building And Fitting Out

Before starting to think about your builder and your layout, think first about your reasons for buying a boat. How often will you use it? If you are considering a boat for live-aboard or long-term cruising then your only option is to buy; whether that be new or second hand is another question. If, however, you think you may be adding to one of the hundreds of boats laid up in marinas for fifty weeks of a year then perhaps you should consider a timeshare option or hiring? If you do decide to buy, but think you may use the boat infrequently perhaps you could get together with a few friends and share the time and costs between yourselves?
When commissioning a boat you might like to consider the following factors. Does your builder have an ethical policy? i.e. Do they purchase their materials from renewable sources? Have they changed to a "green" electricity tariff (for instance Ecotricity)? As far as possible are the appliances to be fitted to your boat of a low energy rating? A good resource for this kind of information is The Good Shopping Guide (ISBN 0954 2529 34)

Batteries and Oil

Batteries are, for the time being, a fact of life for boaters; at least until such times as new developments in technology (like fuel cells) are realistic and affordable. But how many times have you spotted errant batteries lying abandoned on the towpath? This is really disgraceful behaviour on the part of boaters. So how do we deal with this problem? Some British Waterways depots appear to take batteries for disposal and some chandleries and boat yards (including The Bottom Lock Chandlery at Braunston ) charge a small fee (2 per battery)- but it is worth it!
Servicing your engine means you have to get rid of your waste oil. No! this doesn't mean leaving it under a hedge or putting it in a rubbish skip or dustbin. There are signs prominently displayed at BW service points with a telephone number you can ring for it to be collected or you can take it to your Local Authority recycling centre. Waste Connect is a good website for general recycling.

Engines and Fuel

Well manufactured, maintained and frequently serviced boat engines will dispense fewer carbon emissions - unfortunately not all are! I believe there should be a compulsory emissions test included in the four-yearly boat safety examination.
Fuel for boating is a contentious issue. Carbon emissions relating to unnecessary travelled miles are constantly a target for the environmentalists. Surely though, if you are spending your time boating in this country and not jetting off on holiday at every available opportunity it must be less harmful for the planet. My problem with fuel is one of water pollution. Recently the European Union decided to remove the tax derogation on red diesel for pleasure craft by November 2008, possibly resulting in a doubling of the price of fuelling your boat. This may well tempt many boaters to fill up jerry cans at supermarkets where the fuel will be cheaper (like independent run garages, boatyards won't be able to compete), transport them several miles to their boats (with all of the inherent dangers involved) and transfer the fuel to their tanks, adding to the risk of pollution. There are many instances I can recall where a film of diesel, accompanied with the inevitable smell has emanated up from the canal indicating where somebody has allowed fuel to spill overboard.
One cheap (about 45p per litre), practical and environmentally sound way of fuelling your boat is to make your own bio-diesel. There is more information on bio diesel at Bio-Fuels GB Ltd and on the Environment Agency Website. There is also a network of bio-diesel suppliers growing throughout the country - information can be found on the bio-diesel filling stations website. It may be advisable, though, to contact your engine manufacturer or supplier before you go ahead.
There has been a bio-diesel trial on Norfolk Broads' hire craft to gauge the effects on cruising and the environment. Pleasure craft run on 100% bio-diesel use no fossil fuels, reduce the pollution problem (as bio-diesel is a relatively clean fuel which has a lower concentration of sulphur) is rapidly biodegradable and completely non toxic.
If you are still concerned about the amount of carbon you are releasing into the atmosphere you can always take part in carbon offsetting. That is to say plant a tree or two or get in touch with an organisation like The National Forest who will plant a tree on your behalf for a few pounds.


Lighting your boat can be a drain on battery power, especially during the winter months. Switch off lights you are not using. Halogen bulbs use less electricity than conventional filament bulbs and new LED lighting clusters use even less power. Plan your boat's lighting sensibly.
If using a multi fuel stove on your boat, use wood rather than coal - it is carbon neutral and free in many instances. Why not use the heat from your stove to boil a kettle, simmer a soup or cook pot roast? I swear it always tastes better after a cold day out cruising and it saves us a packet on gas.

Moorings and Marinas

There seems to be a slow but sure move towards marinas and boatyards becoming greener. Architects are encompassing eco-issues in their design criteria and creating wild-life friendly banks instead of steep piles and using sustainable wooden walkways and jetties; but they have a long way to go before they are semi-self sufficient. Sustainable building information can be found at The Association for Environment Conscious Building (AECB) and Wind power information can be found at the British Wind Energy Association. Ensure your marina owner is aware of these before they embark on a new marina or extension plan.


Water is a scarce commodity - Don't waste it. Keep an eye on your hosepipe when you are filling your water tank and don't let it overflow.
Get your marina or mooring to invest in some water butts. Connect them to the down pipes from the clubhouse and utility room roofs and collect the water for washing your boat, flushing the toilets and watering plants.


Don't waste water at locks. Think ahead and plan your next move. If you see a boat approaching an empty lock and you wish to fill it to descend - wait for the approaching boat. Recent cuts in funding may result in pounds running low and imposed cruising restrictions like during the 1980s.
Remember, excessive speed and wash causes damage to canal banks and stresses wildlife.

Cleaning Materials

Many household cleaning products contain obnoxious and unnecessary chemical ingredients harmful to aquatic and plant life and human health. For example, many washing powders contain phosphates, which can lead to potential health risks for you and your children and cause oxygen depletion in the water, resulting in the localised suffocation of aquatic life. Degreasers dry the natural oils that fish need for their gills to take in oxygen and many cleaning products contain chemicals that disrupt the reproductive cycle of some fish. A chemical to avoid which is used in many products such as toiletries, shower gels, toothpastes, washing-up liquids and antibacterial sprays is Triclosan, sometimes called Microban. This is particularly harmful as it is resistant to degradation and so can bio accumulate in fish and crustaceans.
Thankfully there are other products, such as Ecover, which are widely available and do not contain these harmful ingredients. They do the job equally as well as the brand name products, are safer for us, our children and pets and are kinder to the aquatic eco-system of the waterways. For more information contact Tia.


There are many, many things we can do as boaters to improve the environment and our boating experience. Some inevitably cost a little money but lots just require a small shift in lifestyle and attitude. Every one can do a little, but everybody will achieve a lot.

For more information on becoming a greener boater you may like to visit The GreenBlue Website.

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