Passenger Liners and Environmental Practice

The Cruise Line International Association (a body representing the interests of North American cruise companies)  reported in September that the cruise industry is one of the fastest growing areas of tourism. The environmental practices that cruise companies choose to either adopt or neglect will therefore have a serious impact, considering the steady increase in the number of vessels and world destinations on offer.

While walking around the Holland America ship that we were on, we noticed a lot of environmental pledges signed by many of the crew and the Captain as well as talk of ‘stewardship of the environment’. The daily newsletter we received in our cabin also contained info snippets announcing various environmental schemes being put into practice on board. For example, in the first week we were informed that Holland America are:

‘proud to be partnered with Marine Conservation Institute to provide sustainable seafood on all of our ships. Holland America Line [HAL] is committed to healthy oceans, and preserving and protecting ocean resources, for now and for future generations…We have replaced all of our dry cleaning machines that depended on hazardous chemicals, such as perchloroethylene, and replaced them with machines that are able to use fruit extracts as cleaning agents.’

All this points towards the underlying fact that cruise ships have come in for a lot of flack over the last two decades because of the pollution they pour out into the air and oceans through the discharging of various shades of murky waste water as well as the fumes they pump out of their increasingly massive smoke stack exhausts. Friends of the Earth (among other organisations) and even some passengers themselves have repeatedly called on them to clean up their act and it does seem that little by little they are starting to respond. We had heard that there was an Environmental Officer on board and we wanted to find out how much of the environmental concern we’d seen expressed aboard was just PR stuff and how much they were really addressing the serious issues, so we went to reception to see if we could get an interview with him. The lady at the desk said that we could give her a couple of questions which she could email to him and then asked us if we were from Greenpeace, which we found quite amusing.

Later that day we received a phone call saying that the Environmental Officer would like to meet with us and so a time and place was scheduled for later that afternoon. The meeting took place just off the main the lobby and the Officer was a straight talking, honest and interesting man which made for a good conversation. At first he was a little stern, perhaps wary of our motives but he said that our question (to do with how on board waste was disposed of on long voyages such as this) had been a relevant one and he was happy to talk through it with us.

Straight off he told us that the title ‘Environmental Officer’ is misleading because it doesn’t really describe what he does – the carbon footprint of the vessel, for example, is not his concern. Instead he sees himself as more of a Compliance Officer who is there to ensure that the ship’s waste disposal practices etc. are adhering to the legal requirements of each territory the ship sails through. In 2002, Holland America were fined at least USD$2million for illegally dumping waste while in port in Alaska and ever since, the presence of an Environmental Officer such as himself is the norm (although several other ships in the HAL fleet have been fined for waste dumping and air pollution since, mostly offences which took place in Alaska). On board, waste water is filtered through a bioreactor (similar to those found in aquariums) but the disposal itself is controlled by a computer system which tests the purity of the waste before dropping it. Bilge water has to be 15 parts per million of oil or less otherwise the valve won’t physically let it go, and in this instance, it is further filtered until it meets the required level. The Environmental Officer is responsible for monitoring the computer’s output and cross checking the results chart and log.

All territories have their own waste dumping laws and Alaska’s is one of the toughest, determining that no waste lower than category “A” (which contains less bacteria and impurities than the drinking water on board the ships) can be discharged. No bilge (oil related waste), food waste or grey (shower and laundry)/black (sewage) water is allowed to be dumped. Alaska sends ocean officers and rangers aboard all docked boats to double check that all systems and waste disposal logs match up. If not, the cruise company and the boat’s Captain/senior staff can be in serious trouble.

Unfortunately, not all countries have the same strict regulations as Alaska and waste disposal laws can vary from port to port even in the same country. The USA – Alaska in particular – is well known to be the toughest but others, particularly developing countries who need the money from tourism are not so hard line and at best adopt the internationally agreed MARPOL (the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships) standards as their own. In 2010, the Vancouver Sun hit out with a headline that cruise ships were turning BC waters ‘Into a Sewage Bowl’ by being allowed to dump grey water (from the bathrooms and laundry) and sewage into Canadian waters before entering Alaska because of the laxer laws and regulation in Canada.

Alarmingly, even if a country forbids waste dumping in port, this doesn’t mean that the ship won’t dump it into the ocean at all but that they must go at least 12 nautical miles away from shore before disposing of the waste. Processed food (sieved and turned into a ‘mashed potato substance’ described by the Environmental Officer as ‘food for fish’) is commonly disposed of but ships are also legally allowed to dispose of shredded glass and tin if dumped 12 nautical miles from land. The EO said that this is sometimes processed in with the food waste by ‘some companies’, which can’t be at all good for the marine life! Interestingly, the Barcelona Convention prohibits all ships sailing through the Mediterranean from dumping any waste except for food waste – so no tin and glass.

The particular ship that we were on had “MSD-3″ (Marine Sanitation Device) processors on board. Many cruise vessels still use MSD-2 processors or even earlier models and the expense in replacing these mean that many cruise companies are reluctant to replace them until they have to. We were told that Alaska wants to bring in new laws by 2015 which will tighten waste processing even further but cruise lines are contesting this as many of the fleet won’t be up to standards by that time and would be forced into taking alternative routes, denting profit margins in the process (Alaska being one of the most popular cruise destinations). This might be a problem for the Volendam too as they won’t be able to get the next grade of processors until they get a new ship, so I’m interested to see what happens with this…

The EO couldn’t answer our questions relating to fuel as his area of expertise is waste disposal but apparently it is now illegal for cruise ships to burn the highly polluting bunker fuel many of them favour (due its lower cost)  within 12 nautical miles of the Californian coast and so a new low-sulfur diesel fuel is being used by most (which is something at least).

Ironically, recycling seems to have taken a backwards turn. In the 80′s and 90′s, most waste (which could be) was recycled and the ships were often incentivised to do so but now that they have to pay most places to take their waste, a lot of ships aren’t bothering (hence the crushing of glass). Holland America do run a recycling scheme though where any money gained from recycling is put into a crew fund which in turn encourages the crew to make the effort to separate napkins/wine bottles and corks etc. from kitchen and stateroom waste. There were recycling bins in our room for putting paper and glass which was a promising sign. Canada will apparently still take the recycling as will Australia and New Zealand but the USA will not. Others will take certain waste products such as cooking oil and sludge oil (Hong Kong) or will take some things but not others (no recycling of toner cartridges in the UK).

On board the ship, the ‘Environmental Officer’ has the power to go over the heads of the whole crew and even the Captain if necessary (but has never needed to as the Captain is ultimately responsible for his/her ship and can be jailed if its found in breach of conduct). We found the conversation very interesting all in all. What it highlighted was that although cruise lines are now taking waste disposal seriously (to avoid fines), it is the laws and the law enforcement of individual ports and countries which ultimately make the difference and so it is these that need to be tightened up if cruise companies as a whole are to really clean up their act.

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2 Responses to Passenger Liners and Environmental Practice

  1. Helen says:

    A fascinating article. I’m glad you managed to get that interview with the Environmental Officer. What do you think could/should be done to stop cruise ships dumping so much waste in the ocean? Reduce the amount of food waste they create in the first place by cutting down on those extravagent buffets? Remove the fees for taking waste to ports to be recycled?
    It will be interesting to find out how environmentally friendly cargo ships are compared with cruise ships. I’m sure you’ll be investigating that on the next leg of your journey!

    • anna says:

      Hi Helen – very good questions. I think cutting down on the extravagant buffets would be a very good place to start because even the passengers on the ship we travelled on, did not like the amount of food wastage. At 11 pm every night entirely new buffet spreads would be laid out and, more often than not, barely touched before being thrown away. The environmental spotlight is certainly on cruise companies but too many of them use their massive advertising budgets to apply a nice coating of green wash to their brochures and websites. There is still too much disparity between appearance and reality for my liking. Ultimately, I think it is individual countries and ports which can make the real difference by toughening up their laws and taking a more hard line approach when dealing with cruise lines who flout the rules. Alaska and the island of Molokai’i in Hawaii have shown that change can happen, so hopefully others will take inspiration and follow suit…

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