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Marine Flares: A Guide to Proper Disposal and Safer Alternatives

marine flare cropped sweetzerRemember the scene from Jaws 2 (*spoiler alert*)? The one where the bikini-clad water-skier is eaten by the fearsome creature right before the shark attacks the boat-driver as well? If you do, you’ll also remember that the driver attempts to defend herself with a canister of gasoline and a flare gun, only to inadvertently light herself, the boat, and the shark’s head on fire prior to the vessel exploding into oblivion. The point is, whether you own a boat or not, chances are you’ve come across marine flares in your lifetime. You may own them yourself, know someone who does, and/or have seen them in use.

Federal boating regulations are clear when it comes to visual distress signal requirements for recreational boaters:

  • If your boat is used on coastal waters or the high seas, it must have visual distress signals on board
    • Exceptions to these regulations vary by state, but common logic states that any and all boaters should be able to signal for help if the need arises
  • Boats under 16’ in length must have one electric distress light or three combination day/night red flares when operating between sunset and sunrise (aka night time)
  • Boats 16’ in length or greater must have either one orange distress flag and one electric distress light OR three hand-held or floating orange smoke signals and one electric distress light OR three combination day/night red flares (hand-held, meteor or parachute type)

Marine flares are both effective and inexpensive, but their benefits are, at the very least, equaled by their shortcomings. They can be dangerous when used improperly and their chemicals may have a negative impact on water quality due to the perchlorates they contain (aka the stuff that makes them shine bright and go “boom!”). Also, they can only be used once, last for only a few seconds at a time, and have a limited life span of about three years.

Californians generate about 17,000 marine flares each year. If you’re one of them, what do you do to get rid of them? Fortunately, the City’s Household Hazardous Waste Collection Facility accepts both road and marine flares but the disposal cost to the City is high ($10/lb in disposal costs + $500/drum in transportation costs). The Coast Guard also accepts them.

Are there safer, more sustainable alternatives already out there in the marketplace? Absolutely! There are many types of electronic flares out there that are Coast Guard approved and, despite the higher price point than conventional hand-held marine flares, have no expiration date and no disposal needed. Safety is standard with these devices as they are battery operated with a simple on/off switch, last for hours vs. seconds, and some are visible for up to 10 nautical miles.

So, if you have a boat and need marine flares on board, it should be reassuring to know you have a convenient answer to your disposal needs. If you’re looking for a safer, cleaner, longer-lasting alternative, electronic signals are an excellent option.


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