Living afloat… the greener option?

Exploring the environmental benefits of narrow boat living
 

While it’s difficult to generalise, narrow boat living has the potential to be far less environmentally impactful than a traditional bricks-and-mortar house. For a start, boats don’t take up any land. They are a much smaller space and so use less energy to heat up and keep warm.

Everything that goes on or off a boat has to be moved by you, so you tend to be more conscious of the resources you’re using and how much waste you produce.

Spending more time outdoors and means you have a closer relationship with and greater awareness of your immediate environment. However, it does depend a lot on how you live, and how you fit the boat out and use fuel and other resources. There are also a range of environmental impacts to consider that you might not have to think about with a house. 

Environmental considerations  

There are a number of things you need to be aware of in order to avoid polluting the waterways, as well as measures you can take to reduce the environmental impact of your boat:

Waste

  • Grey Water discharge: this is water from the sinks, bathrooms etc. that goes straight into the waterways. Therefore, it’s essential to use eco-friendly cleaning and personal products to avoid discharging any toxic or harmful liquids into the water.  
  • Sewage: as previously mentioned, toilets need to be emptied regularly and toilet waste must never be discharged overboard. There are different types of toilet you can install which have greater or lesser environmental impacts. Compost toilets are great as they use no chemicals and, once broken down, the waste can be composted (assuming you have a heap handy to put it on; never dump it on someone else’s land). Other popular models of toilet feature a holding tank, which needs to be pumped out at intervals at designated spots, filled or flushed with blue or green liquid to neutralise the nastiness. Again, use the eco-friendly liquids available on the market. 
  • On-board waste: have a separate recycling and general waste bin, recycle as much as possible at the points provided along the waterways, and buy stuff with less or no packaging. Never discharge any waste or rubbish overboard, dump it on the towpath or otherwise allow it to enter the environment. This includes highly toxic cigarette butts, and biodegradable or food waste, particularly cooking oil. Compost as much as you can, if it’s an option. 
  • When carrying out maintenance, use only eco-friendly products and fresh water, and take care that no debris (like paint flecks etc.) ever enters the water.

Resource efficiency

  • Insulation is very important for fuel efficiency on board. Wool is a good natural material to use if possible. Double glazing is also very important; bear in mind that small portholes will keep in more heat than large windows.
  • Reduce your water use. Get used to saving it as you have to survive only on what’s in your tank at any one time. If you choose to have a washing machine on board, remember these are heavy on water and power so don’t get anything bigger than you need and always go for the most energy-efficient model you can afford.
  • Always choose FSC certified wood products, or recycled products.
  • Forage for, reuse and repurpose as much as you can. Get stuff second hand and sell or give away your own second-hand equipment rather than throwing it away.
  • Being out in the open affords some good opportunities to forage for wild food. You can even grow some of your own on the roof of your narrow boat.

Fuel and power

  • Reduce the amount of oil and fuel entering the marine environment from your boat by following The Green Blue’s best practice advice.
  • Equip and maintain your boat correctly to avoid fuel leaks. Take care to avoid spills when refuelling. If you do spill, never use detergents to clean it up.
  • Be aware of how much fuel you’re using, and how you use your generator. Try to cook or cool food and drink in more energy-efficient ways. Install low energy lighting and a more efficient engine to reduce your energy use.
  • Think about the carbon footprint of the type of fuel you use for propulsion, heating and power. Consider alternatives like biodiesel or biogas if possible, but ensure these are sustainably sourced and produced. 

Wildlife

  • Be respectful of wildlife. Avoid going too fast as this creates wash that can disturb animals, not to mention eroding the bank. Never cruise too close to, corner or pursue animals or birds. Always keep dogs under control.
  • Limit the spread of invasive non-native species along waterways by checking and cleaning your hull and any equipment that may have come into contact with the water such as ropes, fenders and the barge pole before moving onto a new stretch of waterway.

The Green Blue supports sustainable development by demonstrating best practice and encouraging the design and production of innovative, environmentally benign products, facilities and processes within the recreational boating sector.

For more information or to download your free copy of 'The Green Guide to Boating' visit www.thegreenblue.org.uk.  The site is packed with practical advice, case studies and information on green products to help you save money, protect water quality and habitats and ultimately, safeguard the future of our inland waterways.