Cruising: The Case For Sustainability, Part One

Doing a quick Google search about the environmental impact of cruising brings up almost 3 million results. Is cruising environmentally friendly? The short answer is no. The long answer? It’s no too.

We can look at “harm reduction,” however. In this series, we will be looking at the measures that cruise lines are taking to reduce or counteract their environmental impact in another article. But today, we will be looking solely at the environmental issues contributed to or caused by cruise ships.


It’s natural that any business that caters to or deals with the public is going to cause waste. Even if a cruise line is looking to make environmentally conscious decisions to reduce waste, producing some kind of waste is inevitable whether it’s trash from passengers, plastic straws, water bottles, wine bottles, food waste, or something else.

The issue with cruise ships, though, is that they are so large that taking these measures to reduce waste can really make a difference. For example, if plastic straws automatically come in every drink that is given to a passenger on a ship of 3,000 people, you are going to go through about 9,000 or more straws a day if people are drinking a drink with a straw at every meal. And looking past meals, straws are used in cocktails, soft drinks, coffees, and more. So realistically, that number would probably be doubled or tripled.

The issue with plastic waste is that plastic does not decompose quickly – if at all. In fact, Rick LeBlanc states that “plastic items can take up to 1000 years to decompose in landfills.”

To best explain how ocean life is impacted by plastic, you can check out this infographic that I found.

Essentially, plastics can not only physically harm ocean life due to consumption, entanglement, or something else, but there are chemicals in plastics that are toxic as well. When ingested, these can be harmful to marine animals.

On the topic of drinks, most cruise ships provide passengers with bottled water in their staterooms. This is the most efficient and safest way for passengers to get water on board. Or is it? (Hint: Next week we will look at a cruise line that is bringing water tap stations to every stateroom on its newest ship.) If a family of three is drinking one bottled water each, every day, that comes to 21 plastic bottles of waste per family at the end of a 7-day sailing. But looking back at our big ship example of 3,000 people, that comes out to 21,000 water bottles.

Now, the problem with these examples is that there is not much research to back them up. But we will get to the facts and figures in a minute. I am looking at what I have observed when sailing and the patterns that I typically follow. If a cruise line isn’t willing to cut down on waste, there are things that you can do such as asking for no straw with your drink, or opting to drink tap water instead of bottled water throughout the day and night.

The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that cruise ships accumulate an average of 210,000 gallons of sewage, one million gallons of graywater, 130 gallons of hazardous waste, eight tons of solid waste, and 25,000 gallons of oily bilge water per seven-day voyage.

Now, there is not much you can do about the oily bilge water, or oil that is collected by the ship when the ship is floating, but if we make conscious decisions during sailings we can help cut down on solid waste.

Heavy Fuel Oil

According to the Independent UK, “Heavy fuel oil is the lowest grade fuel product to emerge from refineries, and its use means that emissions of harmful gases from shipping is very high.”

Many cruise ships still use heavy fuel oil (HFO) which can release greenhouse gases, sulfur dioxide, and soot. Soot is an issue in the Arctic, because it can destroy ecosystems. Kevin Harun explains that when soot is deposited into the ice and snow, the snow and ice absorb more sun, which can cause warming and melting. HFO is also toxic to fish, seabirds, and mammals and cause hypothermia and death. If animals die due to contamination, it affects the economy of nations that rely on the sale of animal products.

Ballast Water

Another concern is ballast water, or water that is taken on and let out to keep the ship balanced. If water is picked up from a certain part of the ocean and dumped into another part of the ocean, it can bring invasive species with it.

If these invasive species are brought into other parts of the ocean, they can damage the ocean life in that area. However, most ships are regulated by ballast water management systems that are required to meet certain standards. These systems allow ships to dispose of ballast water in a controlled way, instead of simply spewing it into the ocean.

Air Pollution

Because cruise ships are so large they have to use a lot of fuel. According to Forbes, “A single cruise ship can emit as much pollution as 700 trucks and as much particulate matter as a million cars.”

The same article states, “The biggest issues with cruise emissions are the levels of nitrogen oxide, which has been linked to acid rain, higher rates of cancer and other forms of respiratory diseases.”

What Are Cruise Lines Doing?

There is tremendous pressure on the cruise industry to make cruising more sustainable. Many cruise lines have vowed to switch to cleaner fuels, reduce waste, eliminate single-use plastics, and more. We will look at specific examples in next week’s article; however, it is important to note that many changes are being made.

The best thing that we can do is hold cruise lines accountable and make sure that they are taking initiatives to make travel by ship more sustainable. We are doing a good job of this, as we saw with the Department of Justice fining Princess Cruises $40 million in 2017, and now Carnival for $20 million.

In 2017, Princess Cruises was fined $40 million for dumping oil and fuel waste into the ocean. Now Carnival is being fined $20 million for Princess Cruising dumping waste yet again. This time it was food and plastic waste.

“Today’s case should send a powerful message to other companies that the U.S. government will continue to enforce a zero tolerance policy for deliberate ocean dumping that endangers the countless animals, marine life and humans who rely on clean water to survive,” says U.S. Attorney Ferrer.

This why it is important to know about the environmental impacts of cruising, so that we can see what needs to be changed in order to demand accountability from cruise companies. And, a lot of companies are making strides on their journey to be more sustainable. More on that next week.

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One Comment

  • I had no idea about so many ways cruising can impact the health of oceans such as ballast water. Thank you for your very informative article. Thank you for identifying ways we can reduce our harm and make a difference. Thank you for the information about cruise companies that are taking positive steps to be ethical and responsible!


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