Natural Life Magazine

Cleaning Up Cruise Ships

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 ocean.

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.

A 2016 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 closings.

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 grades.

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 biggest cruise 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 port.

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 disease.

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.

Wendy 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.


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