Cruises—many of us have been on them, and many of us love them, but what impact do these “floating cities” have on the environment? What role do they play in the climate change debate? With so many different cruise lines and differing regulations, which depend on what waters you are in and where you are originating from, the rules of cruise ship waste and environmental safety regulations can get messy very quickly.
The first alarming statistic most sources will talk about when referring to environmental impact from cruise ships is their emissions. The average cruise ship burns through 150 tons of fuel a day, according to a cruise ship ranking done in 2017 by NABU. This puts as much pollution into the air as roughly 1 million cars would in a day, except these emission rates are coming from one single ship, in comparison to 1 million automobiles.
Along with awful records of high fuel emissions, Friends of the Earth did a study that found that the cruise ship industry is also responsible for casting an annual total of over 1 billion gallons of sewage into our oceans—yes, annually and recurring. With this being said, it racks up to an average of 21,000 gallons of sewage per ship, per day being propelled into our oceans. This adds up to a whopping average of anywhere between 145,000 to 210,000 gallons of sewage weekly per every 3,000 passenger cruise ship.
This “sewage” is made up of many things: bilge water (bilge contains oils and other contaminants from engines and is usually treated by ships before being dumped into the ocean, but many times it goes untreated and unnoticed) and greywater (the bulk of sewage and made of oils, grease, detergents, foods, many different pathogens and oxygen-depleting nutrients). Greywater is estimated to be produced at an average of 170,000 gallons of water daily.
Besides the obvious large amounts of solid waste that are ridden, these cruise ships also emit an enormous amount of air pollutants. These air pollutants, that come out of the ship’s smokestacks, include things like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter (nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide are the two main elements that make up acid rain). According to their latest environmental report, Carnival Corporation’s ship emits 1.17 pounds of carbon dioxide per passenger per mile. This means that during a seven-day cruise, the average passenger wastes the same amount of carbon dioxide emissions as they would during 18 days on land.
These cruise ships are quite literally floating cities—or floating hotels at the very least—home to thousands of passengers and staff members, all who need to be housed, fed and have proper facilities to use as they would on land. It should come as no surprise that the emission levels that come from these ships are similar to that of cities of the same size and stature. According to the Pacific Standard, cruise ships root an average carbon footprint three times the size of that on land, and cruise ships have become one of, if not the most, wasteful and environmentally damaging forms of vacation in the world today.
Prestigious and influential cities around the world, such as London and Sydney, have voiced their own concerns regarding the pollution caused by cruise ships as well. Being as large and powerful as they are, cities like these have an upper hand while dealing with this huge industry, but for countries like Nassau or the Virgin Islands—whose economies revolve around tourism—it can be difficult and nearly impossible to try and bargain with these corporations because these smaller islands rely too heavily on the business these ships bring to them.
Cruise ships from different places have to follow certain sets of guidelines and laws from not only where they originate, but also from whatever area they are residing in. Currently, there are laws in place that say all cruise ships must do basic sewage treatment: liquid and solid waste are separated and sterilized, liquid waste is emptied into the oceans and solid waste is burned. Improper disposal of these emissions leads to severe damage, and sometimes even the death, of fragile ocean ecosystems.
With the help of people like Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois and Representative Sam Farr of California, who have publicly voiced their concerns regarding cruise ship emissions, environmental groups have pushed for legislation known as the Clean Cruise Ship Act. If passed, this would bring all cruise ship regulations into one policy, entailing how to properly dispose of emissions like bilge water, greywater and sewage.
Vacation and cruise ships specifically get overlooked by many climate change advocates because they are not the obvious aspects we hear about every day and in the news. In reality, cruise ships may be the worst form of vacation for the environment and for our earth. We can continue to push for legislation forcing this industry to close its reins on the amount of damage they run havoc on this earth every day, or we can sit back and cruise along, hoping that our own generations won’t see the damage they’re doing—or better yet, outlive the climate change timeline. Every step taken towards cleaner earth is a step in the right direction, not only for us but for the future of our home and for our kind.