Note to the reader:  The specifics of the MARIPOL regulations mentioned here are not exact and have been revised, but the article is true. 
Years ago, the oceans of the world were considered indestructible. If man had something he no longer wanted, he could always dump it at sea. Coastal cities used garbage scows to tow their garbage out to sea and dump it. The ocean was considered to be an infinite sink. What harm could a few tons of garbage do to something so large. Then came troubling studies made over years, and we found out that harm could be done to the oceans. Plastics were found to be floating on the high seas, and would be there for thousands of years. Oil and chemical spills covered large areas, sometimes thousands of square miles, of the oceans. Something had to be done. As an outdoors man, hiker and backpacker, I was all in favor of doing my part to help keep the oceans clean. As a Chief Mate on a tanker for several years, I was proud of the fact that I had taken hundreds of loads of oil and never spilled a tea-cup full into the ocean. I was careful to clean tanks and decant the oily residue into a slop tank, and pump it ashore. I was careful topping off, and never over-flowed a tank. Some of the "old time" tankermen seemed to take pride in how little "slops" they had after cleaning tanks. It meant that they had probably discharged the oily tank residues at sea. I got mad when I saw others who weren't as careful as I when operating tankers.

About ten years ago, something was finally done to clean up the oceans. Regulations were written and passed that prohibited much of the dumping of wastes at sea. Unfortunately there was little "user input" into the creation of the new regulations. I have always believed that regulations, in order to be effective, have to be easy and simple to follow. They should be written by people who have knowledge of the activity being regulated. They should provide solutions, and alternatives for those activities that are being prohibited, not just fines and imprisonment for those violating the regulations. When I first got a letter from management forwarding the new IMO garbage regulations, I thought it was a joke! They were so complicated and vague I doubt that if any two well educated people could read them and tell us what we were supposed to do. The end person who dumps at sea is usually a messman, who is lucky to have more than three years of public education. His reading and writing skills are slim to none. Here we had about five pages of legal boiler plate. It provided for separate treatment for four classes of garbage. We had "trash" which was wood, cardboard, and paper products. We had "garbage" which was foodstuffs (edible garbage) that was bio-degradable. Then we had plastics, things that contained plastics, which included cigarette butts, paraffin covered milk containers, and anything else that was not clearly trash or garbage. Finally, we had the top category, "Chilled Galley Plastics". These were the wrappings for meat. They had to be washed with soap and hot water, and stored under refrigeration until disposed of ashore in an EPA approved facility. Everywhere in the ship we had to have three trash cans instead of one. Trash-for your papers; garbage-for your apple core; and Plastic-for anything else you weren't sure of. Trash and garbage could be dumped at sea as long as you were at least 40 miles offshore. Plastics had to be landed ashore, and Chilled Galley Plastics had to be returned to the USA to an EPA approved facility. We had to keep a "Garbage Log" that detailed how many cubic feet of garbage we dumped at each location, and how many cubic feet of plastics we landed ashore, and where. It seemed like every paragraph of the regulations was suffixed with "penalties for violation" include fine up to $10,000 and/or 10 years in prison", or some similar warning.

Before these regulations, it had been a challenge to make the messman dump the galley wastes over the leeward side of the ship. They could not understand why, if they dumped the garbage successfully from one spot on the rail one day, that the garbage would blow back on them the next day. Now these crew members were faced with five pages of regulations. I only wish the people who wrote the regulations could be there to help. We began by making signs around the mess halls and galley that had to be controlled by the watch officer, saying when dumping of trash and garbage was allowed, and when it was prohibited, depending on our distance from shore. We had to make a lot of new trash cans out of 55 gallon drums on the stern for the plastics. Of course it meant carrying a lot of smelly garbage around the oceans. I could not imagine how cruise ships handled the problem, until a few years later I saw a video someone made on a Carnival Cruise Line ship, of the crew illegally dumping at night. I think they were recipients of one of the $10,000 fines. The video was aired on CBS's "60 minutes."

The fines were bad enough, but one of the Lykes ships had to pay $10,000 for "removal of toxic and hazardous wastes" to take ashore the meat wrappers in Milwaukee. The garbage men came down in "space suits" to take away the "chilled galley plastics" which were the plastic wrap and Styrofoam dishes under the meat used during the voyage, which had been duly washed and stored in the chill box. I could understand and sympathize with Carnival Cruise Lines predicament.

What we really needed, and what would have had much better results, was a plan where all ships get a dumpster placed on board. Everything could go into one or more dumpsters to be removed at any port in the world as necessary. The placement and removal would be covered in the port fees. I know Bremerhaven, Germany, has such a system. It needs to be followed by the rest of the world. Most people don't like to pollute, and are happy to abide by regulations if they are workable. Sadly the regulations we now have in place do not create solutions, and are not having the desired result.

Finally, It's my impression that ships are a scapegoat for pollution of the world's beaches. A few years ago the beaches of New Jersey were making headlines for medical wastes and other garbage washing ashore. It was presumed to be the fault of passing ships. No mention was made of the fact that for years New York City had a fleet of garbage scows dumping wastes off those same beaches. I can't imagine trash from a city of millions of people wouldn't be more significant than trash from about 1,000 merchant ships with an average crew of 25 people.