Cruise ships & the environment

January 10, 2020   ·   0 Comments

By Martina Rowley

The festive month of December is behind us, the new year has been rung in and soon many warm-blooded Canadians will be itching to escape the cold. With Florida and Caribbean climes not too distant, beach holidays and cruises are top choices this time of year.

According to various sources, the global cruise ship industry transported over 26 million customers in 2018. Over the previous five years (2012-2017), demand for cruises increased by 20.5% and continues to outpace supply, despite additional ships being built every year. The ships themselves continue growing too, accommodating on average 3,000 passengers and as many as 6,000 plus up to 2,000 crew members! These ships are truly monstrous. 

While cruise-related passenger spending at ports of call certainly contributes to local economies and jobs, the environmental impact is simply staggering. These ships are the size of small cities and generate the same amount of waste – in terms of garbage, human and water waste and air pollution. This is why, when I texted my sister a while back vaguely musing about a Caribbean cruise, she nearly had a fit and reminded me that they were environmentally disastrous. Now that I have researched some data, I agree with her wholeheartedly.

Sadly, and mind-bogglingly, international legislation hardly regulates waste management of cruise ships. This results in tonnes of solid and liquid waste being dumped into our oceans and seas – the very same pristine turquoise waters the ships’ passengers are there to enjoy. 

In a somewhat dated report from 2004 titled “Contamination by cruise ships”, non-profit organisation Ocean shows that a ship with an average 3,000 passengers on a one-week cruise generates approximately 1,000 tonnes of waste per day: 550,000-800,000 litres of greywater, 100,000-115,000 litres of blackwater, 13,500-26,000 litres of oily bilge water, 7,000-10,500 kg garbage and solid waste and 60-130 kg of toxic waste. Another number shows that on a one-week cruise, passengers produce a total of 150 million gallons of sewage per ship, and the entire cruise ship industry around 1 billion gallons per year. In international waters, this can be and is dumped legally into the sea. Fresh seafood, anyone?

Since the Caribbean has the highest rates of tourist arrivals in the world and approximately 60% of global cruise ship passages are to the Caribbean, this industry has a powerful impact on the small countries and islands they operate and dock in (2016 research paper by the Association of Caribbean States). Most of these ports understandably lack the installations and services to receive and process such a deluge of waste. 

Behind their squeaky-clean on-board entertainment, the cruise ship industry appears to stink not only of waste but criminal violations. A report by the U.S. government revealed 87 indictments for illegal dumping by cruise ships in its waters between 1993 and 1998, and 69 cruise ships from 42 different companies were mentioned as chronically involved in illegal dumping and submitting false information. 

Even if you do not plan to swim at your on-shore visits, you are exposed to air pollution while on-board. A German watchdog organisation, Nabu, surveyed 77 cruise ships and found that 76 used toxic heavy fuel oil, which is the lowest grade product from refineries and said to be 50 times more toxic than regular fuel, emitting particulate matter (soot) and sulphur dioxide. Standing on the ship deck was compared to standing and breathing in one of the world’s most polluted cities. 

Air pollution also comes from solid waste incineration on-board, generating ash and smoke emissions. A few cruise operators have switched to cleaner fuel, like liquefied natural gas with a lower sulfur content, but as it is not enforced, it is cheaper not to do so. While ships in the Baltic Sea and North Sea have, in recent years, been using exhaust after-treatment systems, only about half of world-wide cruise ships bother. 

I am saddened by this disturbing data and the vast pollution this tourist industry causes, and where each individual passenger’s carbon footprint TRIPLES in size during a cruise. As a good environmentalist who walks her talk, I can never justify going on a cruise now; unless one of the cruise lines one day offers a ship with impeccable environmental and waste management standards! 

Before you decide whether to cruise, or not to cruise, you can check the Friends of the Earth cruise ship report card online for ratings of 185 cruise ships and 16 major cruise lines. Look for practices such as no waste going overboard, solar panels, a water filtration system to convert black water and wastewater before discharging, low-flow shower heads and environmental staff-training.


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