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Poopatorium Gallorium

Alex at work onboard
When I first heard that cruise ships are huge polluters, I was going to spin this great yarn about a new humungous cruise ship christened the “Poopatorium Gallorium”. I had even come up with some great names for the Cruise Line, which sounded kinda like some of the major companies – Royal Carrion, Carnivore, etc. I was also going to tie in this cute little clown fish and how he and his community were suffering as a result of all the cruise ships coming "passing" over their reef.  Imagine the sight of a really, really huge whale swimming overhead with a constant and unbelievable case of diarrhea. But some guys made a very cute movie about a clown fish. I also figured that the issue is far too serious to write something glib and have a reader perhaps miss the point, so I bagged the whole idea.

Instead of doing that, I will try, for once, to stick to the facts – inasmuch as one can glean them from the available information, and inasmuch as I am able to remain cool, calm and collected…

When it comes to something like pollution, everyone likes to point the finger: “He dunn it!” That makes ‘them that matter’ look at the other guy, while the finger pointer may, in reality, be just as guilty. In all honesty, pollution comes from a lot of sources and small boats are right in there. As we were looking for ‘the right’ boat for extensive offshore cruising, wouldn't you know that some of the offshore cruisers have no holding tank and are proud of it! Now, what do these boats do while at anchor (quoted as 80% of the time) in some lovely pristine bay? Similarly, we'd heard racers boasting that they have a holding tank but it's never been used. Now I know they don't want to add any weight, but it's not like it's not onboard anyway.

‘Official people’ like to go after soft targets, so cruising sailboats are likely to wind up under the microscope – particularly since they are often crewed by a single couple. Commercial ships, such as cruise ships, tend to be registered in countries of convenience – for financial, legal and other reasons, and that complicates matters if anyone would want to go after them.  Although sailboats pose a much smaller threat to the environment if you consider a total of maybe 7000 sailboats with perhaps 28,000 people onboard maximum in total cruising in a year versus ~10 million people aboard 167 cruise ships in a year. However, this does not exempt us cruising sailors from making sure we do not pollute.

As members of the Seven Seas Cruising Association (SSCA) and other international sailing organisations, the largest organization of cruisers in the world, we feel very strongly about the credo “Leave a Clean Wake”. Not only does this mean we are ‘ambassadors’ of the cruising community wherever we go, and that our actions will affect how our successors are treated when they get ‘there’, but that we care strongly about the local ecology. Trash and pollution are simply not acceptable.  We want to leave the place as pristine as we found it to make sure it continues to sustain the local population and that it’s just as beautiful when we next return – or when someone else gets ‘there’.

A big part of the pollution problem, as one might expect, is simply bureaucracy. There are so many overlapping laws – national, regional, local and forget about international, with agencies everywhere being ‘responsible’ - that an official often will not know whom to contact. This also leaves countless loopholes, perhaps more like abysses, for ‘defending’ attorneys, a breed of Homo unscrupulous-sapiens. All the more reason for the ‘official’ to go after the soft target and be able to chalk up a couple more ‘brownie points’.

Pollution control for the cruise ship industry is regulated by the MARPOL Protocol, an international convention for the prevention of marine pollution generated from all ships. Ocean dumping of waste is controlled by the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and other Materials. Disposal is restricted by location and type of waste. For example, the wider Caribbean is designated as a "Special Area" in MARPOL 73/78, Annex V, making discharge requirements for the region restricted due to special oceanographic conditions, ecological considerations and the particular characteristics of regional shipping traffic. It also includes specific provisions prohibiting the disposal of any plastic products. Although many cruise ship lines are legally obligated to comply with these conventions, it is interesting to note that the Caribbean nations themselves are largely not signatory nor contracting parties to the protocol. And guess what: “Mistakes happen”.

Photo of Queen Mary II in New York Harbor. Copyright Ian Dunn. All rights reserved.

Cruise ships have been described as "floating cities" and like cities, they have a lot of pollution problems (sic: They produce a lotta poop.). Their per capita pollution is actually worse than a city of the same population due to weak pollution control laws, lax enforcement, and the difficulty of detecting illegal discharges at sea. Each allows antiquated or lower cost systems and procedures to remain in use.

Based on EPA estimates, in one week a 3000-passenger cruise ship (considered an average size) generates about 210,000 gallons of sewage, 1,000,000 gallons of gray water (shower, sink, and dishwashing water), 37,000 gallons of oily bilge water, more than 8 tons of solid waste, millions of gallons of ballast water containing potential invasive species, and toxic wastes from dry cleaning and photo-processing laboratories.

This does not include the diesel exhaust emissions equivalent to thousands of automobiles. Although there are pending new rules from the EPA on diesel engine emissions, there are essentially no present emission restrictions and the proposed new rules are still much weaker than for land-based emission sources.

Now sit back for a moment and reflect on the last time you visited a major cruise ship destination; this may be Juneau , Alaska , New York City , Hamilton, Bermuda, or Nassau, Bahamas . How many cruise ships did you see there at one time? How big are their holding tanks and how long do they remain in port?  Pretty scary, huh? Cruise ships are vital for the economies of these destinations, but at what cost?

Current methods for the treatment and disposal of cruise ship-generated waste are limited. Separation and recycling is fundamental to any waste management program. Cruise ship supplies contain a considerable volume of disposable items: serving utensils, plastic glasses, bottles and tins. These must be separated by hand and by machines.

Maceration of food waste and other more noxious waste aboard cruise ships is abundant. Sorting of plastics and other non-organic substances must be conducted prior to pulp processor maceration and discharge. Incineration is being tested on some ships, however this can cause burning to the eyes, headaches, and respiratory disturbances among passengers, crew persons and anyone who might be subject to the air emission – has anybody heard about air pollution? And then, once the stuff is incinerated, the ash must still be treated and disposed.

Cruise ships (and other ships) are required to have "marine sanitation devices" (MSDs), which are designed to prevent the discharge of untreated sewage. Sewage must be treated to specified standards (quoted at “minimal”) before discharge if the ship is stationary or if it is within a specified distance (generally three miles) of shore. When the ship is beyond three miles from shore, there are no restrictions on the release of untreated sewage. We all know that the offshore currents ‘never’ go towards any coast or over the delicate coral reefs.

The dumping of garbage at sea is prohibited within certain distances from shore, generally ranging from 3 to 25 miles. Dumping of plastic is prohibited everywhere at sea, and all discharge or incineration of garbage must be recorded in a Garbage Record Book.  I’m sure it is, and as we ‘never’ see any sign of plastic washing up on the shore, I suppose we can be pretty sure that nobody dumps prohibited things while at sea.

All waste treatment is subject to the human factor – including mistakes and management's lack of attention. There are no real incentives, other than public opinion, to spur cruise line owners to implement methods of cruise ship waste management and pollution controls. Fines for non-compliance with disposal regulations have been imposed, but probably need to be stepped up if they are to be effective and prove a significant expense to a cost-conscious industry. 

Even taking the lax laws into consideration, the cruise ship industry does not have a good record of compliance with the existing weak and conflicting regulations. From 1993 to 1998, cruise ships were involved in 87 confirmed cases of illegal discharges of oil, garbage, and hazardous wastes into US waters. In 2001, Royal Caribbean admitted in court it had installed special piping to bypass pollution control devices and pleaded guilty to dumping toxic chemicals. They were fined $33.5 million to settle dumping complaints that occurred between 1994 and 1998. In April 2002, Carnival Corporation pleaded guilty to falsifying records to cover up pollution by six ships over several years. They were assessed an $18 million fine. In July 2002, Norwegian Cruise Lines paid a $1 million fine and agreed to pay $500,000 to environmental organizations in Florida for falsifying Coast Guard records regarding discharge of oily waste and hazardous waste into the ocean. And the list goes on.

Cruise ship passengers are also recognizing that their attractive, modern and efficient vacation voyage may entail the dumping of unwanted baggage in the form of illegal discharge of waste into the ocean along the way. A recent suit against Princess Cruises of Great Britain resulted in a $250,000 award to cruise passengers who witnessed and videotaped a trail of plastic garbage bags dumped into the sea.

A noteworthy positive trend is emerging among Caribbean nations, where the governments themselves are beginning to recognize the deleterious effects of destroying pristine marine ecosystems. The Cayman Island Government is the first to assess severe fines on cruise lines, which do not adhere to waste disposal requirements or commit other "marine environmental offenses in Cayman waters." Collectively the various constituencies involved in cruise management and pollution control issues are beginning to address the problems and work to improve water quality in the Caribbean and elsewhere.

What is truly amazing is that it has taken so long for people to become aware of the hazards of cruise ships. I myself had never really imagined of the extent of the problem, and certainly never realized how big the cruise business is – much less how fast it is growing. In 2005, Carnival alone expects to carry a record number of passengers aboard their fun ships - 3.3 million in one year.

The idea behind these thoughts was to increase awareness just a little bit. I must say, we are not cruise ship enthusiasts and we have never actually been on a passenger liner other than a ferry.  Now that we think of them as floating waste production facilities (Poopatorium Gallorium is a name that’s gonna stick), I doubt we will ever do so. But this does not mean we are finger pointing. We sailors and motor boaters have to do our part: we love the sea, fish its waters, sail to its horizon and love its shores.

Pollution from cruise ships and smaller vessels is totally preventable. The technology exists. We do, however, need effective regulations and the power to enforce them. If you are planning a cruise, investigate the cruise line to be sure their ships do not have a record of pollution. If you are on a cruise ship and observe any dumping of plastic or hazardous materials to sea, you should report it to the National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802.

More importantly, if you are out there sailing, take a moment to pause and think what you can do for our environment.  How is your holding tank doing? And watch out if you cross a cruise ship’s wake… it may be pretty slippery out there!

Sources: International Council of Cruise Lines (ICCL); Business Research and Economic Advisors study for ICCL , USA Today

* All publicly held

Some Cruise Ship Stats

Number of Ships: 167 worldwide.
Biggest cruise lines*: Carnival Corp., owner of Carnival, Holland America , Costa, Cunard.
Royal Caribbean International, owner of Royal Caribbean, Celebrity.
P&O Princess Cruises.
Star Cruises, owner of Star, Norwegian Cruise Line, Orient Lines.
Number of passengers: Average per ship is 3000
Total 2001 8.4 million worldwide.
Total 2002 7.4 million projected from North America alone.
Growth About 8% annually over the last decade
Estimated 2001 gross industry revenue: $13.8 billion.
Estimated 2001 operating income: $2.2 billion.

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