Environmental Impacts of Cruise Ships

By Jennifer Mu

Many people I know have taken at least one vacation onboard a cruise ship in their lifetime. Some of our friends vacation on cruise ships only. Why not? On a single cruise, you can have all the luxury of a resort hotel while visiting many exotic destinations. You can also avoid the headache of packing and unpacking every other day.

Ocean cruises are becoming ever more popular with vacationers worldwide. Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) projected a six percent (6%) increase in cruises in 2019.  It estimated 30 million travelers onboard oceangoing cruise ships.

As the popularity of ocean cruises grows, so have the number and size of cruise ships. The cruise industry added nine new oceangoing ships to its fleet in 2018.  The industry reports 50 more ships are on order between 2018 and 2025. The average passenger capacity of ocean liners is around 3,000 guests; the largest ship in 2018 has a maximum capacity of 6,680 passengers and 2,200 crew members.

Cruise Ship Waste Streams

Wherever humans travel, they generate waste. Large cruise ships are often referred to as “floating cities.” The ships produce waste amounts equivalent to a small city. According to a 2008 USEPA report, an average cruise ship with 3,000 passengers produces about 21,000 gallons of sewage a day.

Using USEPA data, Friends of the Earth (FOE) estimates cruise ships dump more than one billion gallons of sewage annually. FOE says the estimate is conservative because the newer ships are significantly larger in capacity.

Cruise ship waste streams include sewage (black water), gray water, bilge water, ballast water, solid waste (food waste and garbage), hazardous waste (including medical waste) and air emissions. Ships also burn garbage using onboard incinerators, contributing to smog in coastal communities and on the ocean. The ashes adversely impact both water and air quality. The “luxury” factor also generates waste. For example, some ships offer teeth whitening services, acne treatments or detox body wraps.

Large vessels are required to have Marine Sanitation Devices onboard to treat both sewage and graywater to required standards before discharging into state waters. Outside the state waters, ships can dump untreated sewage anywhere except areas designated as “No Discharge Zones.” In 2012, USEPA approved California’s petition to ban all sewage discharges from large cruise ships and other oceangoing ships to the state’s marine waters and surrounding major islands.

Environmental and Health Concerns

Cruise ships often operate in pristine coastal waters and sensitive marine ecosystems. But the very character of these marine waters that attract cruise ship passengers also can be harmed by pollution from these ships.

As the number of cruises increased, cruise ships’ waste management practices have increasingly become a public concern. We’ve heard stories of oil spills and deliberate dumping of waste into the ocean. More recently, in 2016, Princess Cruise Lines pled guilty to seven felony charges and paid $40 million in fines for deliberately dumping graywater and oily bilge water into the ocean from 2005 through 2013 and lying to cover it up.

Increased ship size has resulted in more waste

Air pollution by cruise ships took center stage in 2018. An international coalition of environmental groups launched a global “Clean Up Carnival” campaign, calling the company to stop using heavy fuel oil to power their ships traveling in fragile Arctic and sub-Arctic waters. A German environmental watchdog, Nabu, also called on European ports to ban cruise ships that burn heavy fuel oil.

In January 2019, an undercover study found the decks of four Carnival cruise ships as polluted as smog-ridden cities such as Beijing and Santiago, containing toxics that are harmful to passengers. Stand.earth, an international environmental group, commissioned the study.  It was conducted by a faculty member at John Hopkins University.  Stand.earth is currently campaigning to get Carnival to stop using heavy fuel oil. Carnival accused Stand.earth of creating “fake tests” for fundraising purposes.

Cruise Industry’s Green Efforts

Cruise lines are keenly aware of the importance of a greener image. CLIA has developed its own environmental standards. As a result, it now promotes recycling and waste management programs, cleaner fuels and boosting the efficiency of onboard sewage and gray-water treatment systems. There are ships that burn excess cooking oil to help power engines, separate and sort recyclables onboard, use environmentally friendly cleaning products, employ low flow toilets and connect to shore power to avoid fuel burning in port.

So, when you plan a vacation onboard an ocean-going cruise ship, consider an eco-friendly ship to enhance your enjoyment. Friends of the Earth periodically publishes a Cruise Ship Report Card. It grades the cruise lines in four categories – sewage treatment technology, air pollution reduction, water quality compliance and transparency. You can get it on FOE’s website.

Courtesy of the Rossmoor News March 6, 2019. Email Jennifer Mu at barnhartmu8833@gmail.com

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One thought on “Environmental Impacts of Cruise Ships”

  1. Excellent article. Thank Jennifer, Jim, and Bob.

    My response is YUK! Never been on a cruise ship and not tempted. They are also a floating incubators for infectious diseases.

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