Environmental Impact of Cruise Ships

Environmental Impact of Cruise Ships

Recent research has found that the carbon footprint of a cruise ship is more than 12,000 cars. A cruise voyage to the Antarctic generates as much carbon emissions as a person would generate in a year.

Every day cruise ships give out five to six tonnes of NOX emissions and 500 kg of fine particulate matter. They also release sulphur dioxide equivalent to that generated by 3 million cars.

Environmental Organizations in the UK have estimated that a cruise ship generates pollution equivalent to 700 trucks. About 50,000 to 100,00 people die in Britain due to emissions from cruises and container ships. The worst affected cities are Southampton, Grimsby and Liverpool. There have been many efforts to reduce water pollution in the UK, however, most harbours do not uphold the maritime pollution regulations.

These figures are startling in terms of the negative environmental impact that the maritime industry creates. As nations struggle to limit their carbon emissions, the shipping sector has come under increased criticism for flouting environmental norms and causing massive pollution.

The cruise industry is a small but quite prosperous part of the shipping sector. Figures show that 26 million people took one or the other cruise journeys in 2019. This is enough to gauge the enormous pollution and waste that would have been generated by these large luxury ships.

Generator of Massive Waste

Cruise ships are huge and are often described as ‘floating cities’ due to their size and the massive amounts of waste they generate. They do not use proper waste management and cause marine pollution. They release sewage, greywater, toxic waste, oily water, ballast and also solid waste into the seas. Since these toxic waste products are not adequately disposed of, it leads to health hazards for both human and aquatic life.

Since cruise ships are specific to some regions and visit the same places such as New York, California, Seattle and Alaska, they could have a large impact on the local port cities where they dock. There could be accidents and the release of oil and dirty water could pollute the neighbouring water bodies and create serious health issues for the locals.

Water Pollution

Water Pollution.

Cruise ships often discharge untreated sewage into the oceans and seas. This sewage water that comes from toilets contains harmful bacteria and pathogens along with nitrogen and phosphorus. These can lead to the growth of algae and reduced oxygen levels in the sea. It could kill marine flora and fauna. It is estimated that large cruise ships generate around 20-30,000 gallons of sewage every day.

Graywater is the biggest liquid waste produced by cruise ships and accounts for 95% of the total waste generated. This water comes from the day-to-day activities on the ship like bathing, doing laundry, cleaning. It contains harmful detergents, grease, metals, hydrocarbons and also food and dental waste. Research conducted by EPA and Alaskan Government has discovered that cruise ship greywater contains three times the amount of faecal coliform bacteria found in domestic wastewater. These floating giants carrying around 3000 people, generate 200,000 gallons of greywater every day compared to 52 gallons generated at home per day.

Cruise ships also produce enormous solid waste, most of which comprises plastic, aluminium, steel cans and cardboard boxes. Some waste is hazardous whereas other waste can be recycled. Cruise ships encourage passengers to minimise waste generation and not to throw anything offboard. However, still, a huge cruise ship can produce 8 tonnes of solid waste during a one week journey.

About 75% of this waste is burnt but the ash is thrown into the sea. The other plastic waste is stored and sent for recycling once the ship reaches land. However, this waste can cause problems for the local communities, where these ships dock if the waste is not properly discarded.

Many times cruise ships flout environmental regulations and dump solid waste into the seas. This waste containing harmful materials like plastic, aluminium and glass, severely affects marine life. It contaminates the seawater and floats like debris, obstructing the path of fish, turtles and other sea life. They could get tangled in it and get killed. Moreover, these harmful chemicals could enter the food chain if these sea creatures are consumed by humankind.

Cruise ships also generate hazardous waste like batteries and other equipment that is detrimental to the environment. There have been incidents of oil leakages from the cruise ships and usually, a separator is used to remove oil from the bilge water before disposing of it. However, most times this bilge water containing harmful chemicals is discharged into oceans which choke the marine life and pollute vast stretches. Oil forms a thin layer over water preventing sunlight and oxygen from reaching deep-sea areas. Bilgewater causes most water pollution and many ships have been charged for discharging bilge water into the open seas.

Lastly, inadequate discharge of ballast water causes serious environmental and human health risks by introducing non-native species in a place causing ecological imbalance. The discharge of ballast water is the major cause of the introduction of invasive species in US waters.

Air Pollution

Air Pollution

The engines of cruise ships utilise fuel that has a high content of sulphur. When it is burnt, toxic fumes and harmful greenhouse gases like sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide etc are released into the atmosphere. Marine engines generate emissions that are unhealthy and do not meet the air quality standards. They also reduce visibility by producing lots of smoke, leading to acid deposition and eutrophication of seawater.

 The International Maritime Organization found that cruise ships cause 2.7% of global carbon dioxide emissions. They also give out black carbon and nitrogen oxides that cause global warming. These toxic gases also cause lung cancers, asthma and acute respiratory diseases among the local population, where the ship is docked.

While cruise ships do so much harm to the environment, is there no way to stop it? While there are international protocols and distinct state regulations, the laws have loopholes and are not imposed stringently which is why they are easily flouted by many cruise operators.

What can be done about it?

The stakeholders need to be pressurised to follow environmental norms. Also, given the increasing limelight that the cruise ship industry has come under, most operating companies have steadily started to take environmental concerns seriously. This is often done to maintain a good image and gain an edge over their competitors.

Most cruise ship companies are going green and trying to adhere to the MARPOL, a set of laws devised and updated regularly by the International Maritime Organization, a UN Agency governing the laws in international waters.

Some cruise ship operators are turning away from high sulphur content fuel to other clean alternatives. Natural gas is a clean fuel that can be used but since it is expensive, many operators have been resorting to the use of scrubbers that release sulphur laden waste into the seas.

There are other options like using efficient incineration plants on the cruises and recycling methods that can be resorted to.

New technology can aid in decreasing the negative environmental impact of cruises. Novel engines decrease air pollution while a better hull and propellor, and efficient water filters can go a long way in making the luxury cruise ship experience more sustainable. Cruise operators are now gradually opening up to environmental groups and sharing viable information with them.

There is a cruise which is currently being built. Called the Japanese Ecoship, it has an efficient engine, would be run on solar energy and have a minimal environmental impact.

Cruise Ships should be urged to shift from fuel oil to liquefied natural gas. This would significantly decrease carbon emissions. Companies such as Royal Caribbean Cruises and Carnival Group have started investing in LNG ships. They are also planning to experiment with fuel cell technology.

Cruise ship operators can opt for emission purification systems that could remove 98% of sulphur dioxide emitted by the ships’ engines. Some cruises are planning to use electricity and wind energy to move their ships.

Most companies are also installing water-saving equipment into ships such as low-flow toilets, sinks and basins to minimise the generation of wastewater by the passengers.

Also, ports such as Los Angeles, San Fransisco and San Diego use electricity at the ships docked at these ports. This reduces air pollution by 95% at the ports.

Thus, given the current environmental crisis, we need to be vigilant and save our planet from all the pollution created due to unnecessary leisurely activities. Cruise ships should be refurbished with modern technology to make them sustainable otherwise enormous amounts of pollution generated will one day drown the entire humanity.