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.
In the course of a one-week cruise, a ship will dump hundreds of thousands
of tonnes of waste directly into the sea.
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).
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.
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,
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
A decade or so ago, Princess
Cruises began shutting down its ships’ diesel engines and plugging into
shore power to cut down on the amount of smoke spewing into the sky while in
However great that move was, it
seems now 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.”
The cruise industry is growing rapidly as cruises become more and more
popular and ships become larger, transporting tens of millions of passengers a year worldwide. And it generates huge
revenues for all the jurisdictions involved, not the least for cities along
the cruise ship routes. In the U.S. alone, the industry provides more than $32
billion in economic benefits annually and creates more than 330,000 jobs.
However, without stiffer laws and increased enforcement, cruising is definitely not an eco-tourism pursuit.
Priesnitz is the editor of Natural Life Magazine, a journalist with 40 years
of experience, and the author of 13 books.