Waste ahoy!

Cruise lines rely on pristine surroundings for their custom and claim to take good care of the environment, but are they sailing under false colours? Libby Peake investigates

Look at an ad for the cruise industry and what do you expect to see? Images of deep blue, crystal clear seas; cloudless skies; idyllic, untouched beaches or pristine icebergs; perhaps a happy fish or two.

The cruise industry depends on attractive environments to woo customers, and with nearly 20 million passengers a year, they’ve proved very good at enticing people on board. However, it’s unlikely many people embarking on a cruise know the impact the trip could have on the seas, skies, beaches, icebergs and fish depicted in those advertisements.

Given the size of today’s cruise liners, the list of environmental transgressions the ships can and often do make is vast. A cruise is a much more carbon-intensive form of travel than the much-derided long-haul flight: estimates from carbon offsetter Climate Care find cruise liners emit nearly twice as much CO2 per passenger mile as aeroplanes, while other estimates say it’s three times as much. Cruise ships also emit particularly pernicious air pollutants – both from unregulated onboard incinerators and through burning fuel. Though it is outlawed in certain areas, many ships (both recreational and industrial) regularly burn bottom-of-the-barrel bunker fuel – what remains once lighter fractions like petrol, diesel and so on have been removed from crude oil through distillation – and this has a sulfur content 2,000 times that of diesel. (Sulfur creates sulfur dioxide when burned, which is harmful to human health and is a precursor to acid rain.) Ocean campaigning group, Oceana, estimates air pollution from a cruise ship equates to that from 12,000 automobiles, though other estimates place the figure as high as 350,000.

And then there’s the impact ships have on local ecosystems through anchors and ballast water. According to the Smithsonian Institution in the US, a single cruise ship anchor dropped in a coral reef for one day can immediately destroy an area half the size of a football pitch, with half the same area again dying later. (Coral recovery takes 50 years.) The practice of using ballast water – to stabilise a vessel by maintaining its weight following disposal of wastewater or cargo – can have even more devastating effects. Water is taken on in one location and released in another, meaning the practice introduces non-native species (potentially including poisonous algae, cholera, bacteria, and invasive animal and plant species) to delicate ecosystems. The list goes on.

Environmental impacts of the cruise industryAt the heart of the problem is the inefficacy of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), a specialised agency of the United Nations overseeing international shipping regulations, notably the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (known as MARPOL).

Dr Ross A Klein, sociologist and founder of the International Centre for Cruise Research, explains some of the weaknesses in the system: “Conventions adopted by the IMO, which is a slow-moving and complex body, must be approved by 50 per cent of the registered [shipping] tonnage (meaning countries like Panama and Bahamas have considerable strength given the number of ships they have registered) before taking effect. Many conventions can take five to 10 years from approval by the IMO and taking effect given the number of ratifications. Countries not ratifying a convention are not obligated to enforce that convention. For example, the US has not ratified the convention on discharge of sewage and as a result has much less stringent requirements than MARPOL.”

What’s more, MARPOL does not have its own enforcement regime, but depends on enforcement by those states whose waters are affected or where a ship is registered (essentially meaning – especially when ships are in remote waters – no one’s looking). And some substances, including the aforementioned ballast water and grey water, are not regulated whatsoever.

Most waste streams generated by a cruise ship are controlled to some extent, but there are undeniable shortcomings to the system. Let’s start with black water. An average cruise ship generates over 30 litres of sewage per person per day (adding up to over a million litres for a one-week cruise on some of the bigger ships). While ships are required to be fitted with devices to clean black water, raw sewage can be dumped anywhere beyond three miles of the coast. Sewage contains harmful bacteria, pathogens and viruses (all of which can contaminate fisheries and shell fish beds), as well as nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, which promote algal growth, potentially depriving sea life of oxygen.

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