Feces on the High Seas: What is Your Cruise Ship Dumping?

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Full disclosure: I don’t ‘cruise.’ The idea of boarding a moveable city and being forced to share every meal for a week with friendly strangers does not sound like fun to me. Add ship morgues, and the fact that U.S. ships are now required to have sexual assault forensic specialists on board, and I think we’re dealing with something that looks a lot more like purgatory than a carnival.

All that said, I get it. I get that cruises are a great way for a lot of people to get around to remote parts of the world. (Mom I hope you’re reading this.) And that they can be great for families, and are an affordable way to travel. Considering that over 13 million people went on a cruise last year, and that the industry contributed some $35 billion to the U.S. economy last year, I acknowledge that my personal objections are the exception. (See photos on the allure of the Oasis cruise ship)

That doesn’t mean that when something like this week’s Carnival debacle happens, in which reports are trickling in of passengers stuck eating Spam on the open seas, I am above feeling a little smug.

I get the same Rome-before-the-fall feeling from cruise ships that I get from walking into the vast global wares of the Whole Foods produce section: just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. Some 230 of these isles flotantes are in operation today (I actually thought there would be more), and the industry is growing fast. Let’s face it, massive power outages and Norovirus aside, these behemoths are not exactly poster childs for the new green economy. According to U.K.-based Climate Care, they emit nearly twice as much carbon dioxide as planes. They run on bunker fuel, the dirtiest kind, and they dump millions of gallons of treated sewage, gray water, and other pollutants into the oceans every year.

The same thing that makes them a great option for many people – providing a comfortable way to get to pristine remote locations in the Arctic and the tropics – is what makes them worrisome. The Environmental Protection Agency is evaluating the need for more stringent standards for ships’ dumping of treated sewage and graywater (from laundry, showers, sinks and kitchens) in Alaska, after finding that 60% of the ships tested were discharging pollutants including bacteria and metals into Alaskan waters, according the to NY Times. According to the EPA, convictions for environmental pollution by cruise lines were obtained in 1995, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, and most recently in 2006. Here’s an excerpt from a 2008 EPA report on the nature of these past infractions:

The most common violations consist of the knowing and willful making of materially false statements in a ship’s Oil Record Books (a log in which all overboard discharges are required to be recorded) in order to conceal intentional discharges made in violation of [martime law]. The cruise ship prosecutions  have involved as much as hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil-contaminated waste per ship per year, and in some cases have involved violations of multiple ships in a fleet.  Other convictions have involved the deliberate discharge of pollutants without a permit within the navigable waters of the United States, including specifically, waste oil, plastics, sewage, and hazardous chemicals such as dry cleaning solvents, printing solvents, and photochemicals discharged through graywater systems in violation of CWA.

And that’s the U.S., which has greater resources for maritime law enforcement than most nations. All cruise ships fall under international maritime law; indeed, most ships that cruise through U.S. waters are flagged under foreign nations. Both the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships cover global legal standards for ship pollution, but it’s up to the countries where the ships are flagged to have ratified the conventions and enforce those laws on their own vessels. Countries can enforce their own pollution laws when ships are in their waters, but on the high seas, which belong to no one and everyone at the same time, there is a lot of murky legal water out there. (See our list of top 10 travel trends)

The cruise ship industry knows it has to respond to these concerns, and it has, with both greater transparency and action. (Here’s a graphic about onboard waste disposal from Cruise Lines International Association.) CLIA says that many of its members have initiated recycling programs, employee training, improved electricity efficiency, and redesigned elements of the ships to be more friendly to the environments they move around in. In the CLIA’s September 2010 report “Charting a Sustainable Course,” the organization emphasizes the improvements that the industry has made since 1975, including, among many other things, strict adherence to international, federal and port wastewater standards, reduction of emissions through more fuel efficient ships and connecting to on-shore electricity when in port.

These are all good developments, to be sure. But they don’t change the fact that of all the vacations out there, flying halfway across the world to a port to then board a vessel that has to manage all of these issues is always going to be, from an environmental perspective, a less than ideal choice. But if you can’t imagine life without it — and the upward swing in the industry is an indication that many people can’t — here are the EPA’s recommendations on greener cruising.

  • Review the cruise ship company’s environmental policies before booking a cruise.
  • Do not pour inappropriate wastes into sinks or toilets.
  • Do not toss litter overboard.
  • Minimize your use of water.
  • Participate in the cruise ship’s recycling program (if available).
  • Conserve energy by reducing unnecessary use of lights and appliances.

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