As I peeled the shrink wrap off of the top of my compost bucket (put there by my wily kids on April Fools’ Day), I was reminded of a different type of shrink wrap that is used all along the coast. This type is not used as a part of a prank but rather as a way to protect boats through the winter. It’s a strange sight to look at a yard full of boats all covered in stretched-out plastic in the middle of a snow storm. But now, those coverings are starting to come off and people are prepping their boats to get back on the water. There is a lot to do to get a boat ready to be launched again, including a lot of safety checks and engine maintenance for those that are motorized. That’s just on the outside and is often done by professionals at boatyards or shops. There is plenty to get ready for the season inside a boat as well and that is often the responsibility of the boat owner. Now, there is a new way to prepare for the season that protects both boaters and the marine environment, thanks to a law passed last fall for the disposal of expired safety equipment.

One of the most basic pieces to take care of is looking over a boat’s safety equipment. This often includes items like personal flotation devices and fire extinguishers. These are typically long-lasting items that sometimes even stay on the boat through the winter. Other items have to be replaced more frequently. A first aid kit, for example, has some standard components, but medicines need to be checked for expiration dates. Another piece of safety equipment that can expire is the flares that are required in the case of an emergency. The United States Coast Guard requires boats longer than 16 feet to have at least three flares on board. There are a number of different types of flares, some even with a little parachute attached, but a standard marine flare looks a bit like an extra-long highlighter with a cap on either end and can be purchased for around $5 at many hardware or boating supply stores. At its simplest, you remove the cap, strike the tip against it, and point the flare away from you. Then, the flare launches out and burns for up to a minute or so, signaling distress to surrounding boats.

While most over-the-counter medicines can be easily and safely disposed of, this is not true for flares. Flares expire after three to four  years, but up until recently, there has not been a program for safe disposal available to boat owners. This is problematic when you think of how many boats there are over 16 feet and that they each have at least three flares that expire every few years. The reason that flares need to be disposed of in a proper way has to do in part with the chemicals that comprise them. Some of these are toxic and can be harmful to marine life as well as to humans. So, putting them in the water is not a good option nor is putting them in the trash. In addition, even though they may be expired, flares can still ignite and could cause unintended fires.

This summer, however, will be the first boating season since a new law went into effect in Maine to create a program to collect and properly dispose of expired flares. As a result of the law, LD 514, sponsored by state Rep. Jay McCreight of Harpswell, the state purchased an incinerator needed to process the old flares. The high heat of the incinerator breaks down the chemical they contain into non-toxic chemical components.

As we launch into the boating season this spring, there will be outreach and education efforts to inform people about the new program and how to use it. If you are checking through safety equipment this season and have expired flares, you can call the Maine State Fire Marshal at 626-3870 to have them picked up and taken to the state’s incinerator. It is a simple way to take care of yourself on the water and also take care of the health of the marine ecosystem.

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