Cruise ships dumped more than a billion gallons of sewage in the ocean last year, much of it raw or poorly treated, according to federal data analyzed by Friends of the Earth, which is calling for stronger rules to protect oceans, coasts, sea life and people.
Friends of the Earth's 2013 Cruise Ship Report Card says some of the 16 cruise lines graded are becoming less polluting — with five companies including Disney, Norwegian and Holland improving over last year — but more than 40 percent of the 162 ships assessed still rely on 30-year-old waste treatment technology, leaving treated sewage with levels of fecal matter, bacteria, heavy metals and other contaminants harmful to aquatic life and people. By law, wastewater dumped within three nautical miles of shore must be treated, but beyond that ships are currently allowed to dump raw sewage directly into the ocean.
The Environmental Protection Agency says an average cruise ship with 3,000 passengers and crew produces about 21,000 gallons of sewage a day — enough to fill 10 backyard swimming pools in a week. That adds up to more than a billion gallons a year for the industry — a conservative estimate, since some new ships carry as many as 8,000 passengers and crew and the report card doesn't include the entire worldwide fleet. In addition, each ship generates and dumps about eight times that much "greywater" from sinks, showers and baths, which can contain many of the same pollutants as sewage and significantly affects water quality.
Sewage pollution can cause gastrointestinal diseases, diarrhea, hepatitis and other illnesses in people exposed through contaminated seafood or water. Fish, shellfish, coral reefs and other aquatic life can suffocate due to surplus nitrogen and phosphorous from ship sewage.
"It's time for cruise ships to stop using our oceans as a toilet," said Marcie Keever, oceans and vessels program director for Friends of the Earth, whose report card is meant both to draw attention to the environmental impact of the booming cruise industry and to help cruise-goers choose the most environmentally responsible cruises.
"This is an industry worth billions of dollars that could install the most advanced sewage treatment technology available for the cost of a single can of Coke per passenger," said Keever. "We're encouraged that some cruise lines are taking incremental steps to improve their performance, but the entire industry must stop hiding behind weak regulations and take action to make sure the oceans their ships travel remain as clear as the photos in cruise brochures. But we also need the EPA to adopt tougher treatment standards to protect our oceans and coasts from the waste of these floating cities."
Cruise ships are also responsible for significant amounts of air pollution from the dirty fuel they burn. Even at the dock, cruise ships often run dirty diesel engines to provide electrical power to passengers and crew. According to the EPA, each day an average cruise ship is at sea it emits more sulfur dioxide than 13 million cars and more soot than one million cars. Luckily, cleaner fuel standards starting in 2015, in the U.S. and Canada will reduce the amount of sulfur emitted by each ship about 97 percent and the amount of soot by 85 percent, in addition to the interim cleaner fuel standards already in place in North America.
Friends of the Earth's report card grades cruise lines on three criteria:
- sewage treatment technology
- whether ships can plug into shore-based power and if they use cleaner fuel than required by U.S. and international law
- compliance with Alaska's water-quality regulations to protect the state's coast.
Disney Cruise Line, based in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., was ranked as the most environmentally responsible line, earning an A for sewage treatment and an overall grade of A, the only line to score that highly and the first A ever issued to a cruise line. Keever said all four Disney ships have advanced sewage treatment systems and three are equipped to plug in to shore-based power.
At the other end of the scale, Carnival Cruise Lines of Doral, Fla. — which has the world's largest fleet of 24 cruise ships but only two with advanced sewage treatment technology — received an F for sewage treatment and an overall grade of C-minus. Carnival Lines' parent company, Carnival Corp. & PLC of Miami and London, also operates six other lines graded by the report card. Although the Carnival-owned Seabourn and Cunard lines both received an A for sewage treatment and Holland America and Princess received a B and B-minus respectively, two other Carnival lines — P&O and Costa — received extremely low grades for sewage treatment and overall grades of F.
"As the industry leader, Carnival Corp. has to step up its environmental game throughout all of its different lines," said Keever. "How can Carnival Corp. justify having more than half of its fleet continue to use outdated technology that pollutes our oceans and threatens our marine ecosystem health, sea life and all of us?"
The cruise industry is edging forward with incremental improvements, such as those made by Norwegian Cruises, which in 2011 became the first major cruise line to offer guests a carbon offsets program and has long been recycling its used cooking grease by donating it to organic farmers in Hawaii and Miami, according to Ethical Traveler. And the site cites other initiatives, including Carnival's adoption of eco-friendly detergents; Holland's low-flow toilets and showers; and Princess's and Holland's efforts to reduce air pollution from idling ships by enabling several of their engines to be plugged into onshore hydroelectric power while in port. But for cruise lines to truly innovate and begin floating more lightly on the earth, it will likely require the enforcement of stricter power and emissions regulations from the EPA, which has given the industry too wide a berth.
It’s been a busy year for Friends of the Earth: The NGO has already won commitments from several major electronics manufacturers after the NGO released evidence of illegal tin mining in Indonesia; and led a coalition of 30 consumer, health, food safety and fishing groups in launching the Campaign for Genetically Engineered (GE)-Free Seafood, through which several major U.S. grocery retailers committed to not sell GE seafood if it is allowed onto the market.