Cleaning Up Cruise Ships
By Wendy Priesnitz
Taking a cruise may, at first
glance, seem like an environmentally friendly vacation. If you choose to
sail in parts of the Caribbean, up the British Columbia coast, along the
St. Lawrence River, or into the Arctic, you will drift quietly past spectacular
views and pristine environments. In some areas, you might even have the
privilege of observing wildlife like whales and endangered shore birds.
However, your trip – and the
hundreds of others just like it – is probably endangering the very ecosystem
you are so keen to observe. And it’s not a new problem.
According to the West Coast Environment Law (WCEL)
organization, which released a report in 2001 on the regulation of cruise
ship pollution, cruise ships discharge five major waste streams: graywater,
sewage, oily bilge water, hazardous waste, and garbage.
A large cruise ship, the largest of which can carry over 7,000
passengers and crew, on a one week voyage is estimated to generate 210,000
gallons (or ten backyard swimming pools) of human sewage and one million
gallons (forty more swimming pools) of graywater (water from sinks, baths,
showers, laundry and galleys). The U.S. EPA estimates that, in 2014, cruise
ships dumped more than one billion gallons of untreated sewage into the
According to a report by the Earth
Island Institute, graywater from showers and other drains can contain
detergents and pesticides that can cause oxygen depletion in marine
environments. Sewage from cruise ships can contain chlorine and
formaldehyde, paint, solvents, and even dry-cleaning sludge.
report by Friends of the Earth (FOE) on the cruise industry found that
companies are slow to adopt technologies and practices that could reduce
harmful fuel emissions and limit water pollution in the areas where they
travel and dock. FOE graded seventeen cruise companies and close to two
hundred ships and concluded that the industry has shown an “ongoing lack of
initiative” to address the cruise liners’ environmental impacts.
Studies conducted in Alaskan ports
have revealed shocking levels of pollutants coming from cruise ships,
including fecal coliform bacteria in amounts that exceeded U.S. standards by
nearly 100,000 times. In the United States, from 1993 to 1998, cruise ships
were involved in over 100 detected cases of illegal discharges, and paid
more than $30 million in fines.
In the 1990s, Royal Caribbean
Cruises (which claims to be one of the more eco-friendly companies) pleaded
guilty to 21 counts of routine and deliberate dumping of hazardous wastes
into U.S. waters and was fined $18 million.
Aside from damaging the ocean's ecosystems, these discharges also disrupt
coastal economies. In 2012, ship sewage contributed to elevated levels of
fecal coliform that led to more than 31,000 days of beach advisories and
In spite of all this, the cruise industry says it is
working hard to improve its environmental performance. For instance, the
Holland America line, which has a history of exceeding existing regulations,
has installed a waste water treatment system aboard some of its ships. The
system claims to convert wastewater to near-drinking water quality. The
water is re-used for deck wash-downs, laundry rinsing, engine cooling, and
ballast. The 2013 Friends of the Earth Cruise Ship Report Card found Disney, Norwegian,
Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Cunard, and Seabourn Cruise Line have all
installed advanced sewage treatment systems in a majority of their ships,
while Carnival, Silversea, Costa, and Crystal Cruises all received failing
In addition to polluting the oceans, cruise ships
also create significant air pollution, which can harm the health of
passengers, crew, and those on land when they dock.
The pollutants include not only greenhouse gas emissions, but also sulphur oxides,
nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter.
A 2019 undercover investigation by the Channel 4
Dispatches program of Britain’s
operator P&O Cruises found that levels of air pollution on some cruise ships’
decks are worse than in the world’s most polluted cities. The study focused on the levels of “ultra-fine
particles” found in the air and around a cruise ship and emitted from the
fuel burned by the ship’s engines. It found that in one day on the
water, one cruise ship
can emit as much particulate matter as a million cars. The levels to which
passengers and crew were exposed on some parts of the cruise ship were greater than
those they would breathe while standing on the street in highly polluted cities like Delhi and Shanghai.
Some cruise lines now shut down their ships’ diesel engines and plug into
shore power to cut down on the amount of smoke spewing into the sky while in
However great that move was, it
does not help passengers and staff when the ships are on the water. And
recent events make it seem like it was just greenwashing. In the fall of 2016, Princess
Cruise Lines made history by receiving the largest-ever criminal penalty
involving deliberate vessel pollution. The line has agreed to plead guilty
and pay a $40 million penalty for seven felony charges stemming from its
deliberate pollution of the seas by dumping oil contaminated waste from the
Caribbean Princess cruise ship and intentional acts to cover it up.
According to the Maritime
Executive industry business journal, the investigation was initiated after
information was provided to the U.S. Coast Guard by the British Maritime and
Coastguard Agency (MCA) indicating that an engineer on the
Caribbean Princess reported that oily waste was discharged from the ship in
2013 off the coast of England. The chief engineer and senior first engineer
subsequently ordered a cover-up. According to papers filed in court, the
ship had been making illegal discharges since 2005. It also visits a variety of ports in the U.S. and Canada.
The investigation uncovered two other illegal discharge practices
which were found to have taken place on the Caribbean Princess as well as
four other Princess ships – Star Princess, Grand Princess, Coral Princess,
and Golden Princess. They were not truthfully recorded in the ships’ record
books as required.
Princess Cruise Lines is a
subsidiary of Carnival Corporation, the world’s largest cruise company. As
part of the agreement, cruise ships from eight Carnival cruise line
companies (Carnival Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Seabourn Cruise Line
and AIDA Cruises) will be under a court supervised Environmental Compliance
Program for five years.
The motive for the crimes was
probably financial. According to the investigation, the chief engineer that
ordered the dumping off the coast of England told subordinate engineers that
it cost too much to properly offload the waste in port.
John Kaltenstein, senior policy
analyst for Friends of the Earth, told the Maritime Journal, “The entire
industry needs to be investigated…we need federal agency and congressional
oversight of cruise industry pollution practices. Princess’s behavior also
shows that we cannot take this polluting industry’s claims of environmental
responsibility at face value even when they install the most current
pollution control technologies.”
An illuminating perspective about the cruise industry
can be found at a blog entitled Cruise Law News, which has the
tagline “Everything cruise lines don't want you to know.” The owner is a
lawyer based in Miami, Florida, whose firm specializes in suing cruise lines
and has reportedly files thousands of them over the past couple of decades.
The blog documents everything from onboard sexual assaults and other
violence, people going overboard, ships being grounded and damaged, dumping
oil overboard rather than storing it for disposal in facilities ashore,
improper disposal of sewage, the use of single-use plastic and chemicals,
exploitation of wait staff, and, of course, Covid-19. In that regard, the
pandemic has illuminated some of the problems, including poor ventilation,
on cruise ships, with some experts calling them “floating Petri dishes” for
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the cruise industry
was growing rapidly in popularity and ships were becoming larger. Tens of millions of passengers
a year were being transported worldwide, according to Cruise Market Watch,
generating billions of dollars of economic benefits annually to both
the cruise companies and local economies where they stopped, as well as
hundreds of thousands of direct jobs.
It remains to be seen whether the industry will completely rebound from that
setback in the same way it has survived past episodes of environmental
damage. But, at this point, in my opinion cruising is neither an eco-tourism
pursuit nor a healthy one.
Priesnitz is the editor of Natural Life Magazine, a journalist with over 45 years
of experience, and the author of 13 books. This
article was first published in 2001, and updated in 2016, 2019, and 2022.